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Some Notes on Tritium

There's been plenty of talk in our comment strings the past few weeks of the discovery of elevated levels of Tritium, a byproduct of nuclear power generation, in groundwater in and around a number of nuclear power plants.

Recently, NEI issued a fact sheet on the incidents that provides some perspective and insight into the science involved:
For perspective, the amount of tritium in the groundwater at the nuclear power plant with the highest and most extensive levels of tritium is far less than the amount of tritium in a single 'exit' sign. Many industrial-grade exit signs contain 10 to 20 curies of tritium gas. By comparison, the average concentration of tritium in groundwater at nuclear plants is at or below the EPA standard for tritium in drinking water -- 0.02 microcuries per liter.
To read what other blogs are saying about the situation, click here.

Nobody welcomes an incident like this, and officials in the companies involved are taking the lead in communicating the facts to the public. In the case of Exelon, the company is doing it door-to-door in the neighborhoods involved. And that's how it should be.

For information on the situation from the NRC, click here.

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Mike said…
Latest example where an obsolete 60 year old linear no-threshold (LNT) hypothesis for biological radiation damage degrades the image of the nuclear industry in the minds of thousands.

Why doesn't NEI spend some of the millions it gets from the nuclear utilities to educate the public about hormesis and the PROVEN benefits of radiation levels much higher than we get now? It would do much more for the future of nuclear power than your faulty reliance on the con job of man-made 'global warming' to sell nukes.

Taiwan rebar incident proves that radiation exposures of 10,000 mrem a year would make us all much healthier.
Data corruption results in the “Enron of climate science” as hockey stick curve proven false
JasonSpalding said…
Well I read your blog and it would be great if we could put aside physics and just make stuff up too. But we can't can we!
Robert Schwartz said…
"0.02 microcuries per liter."

Is that a lot, a little, or nothing at all? A teaspoon in a swiming pool, or enough to kill the population of Paris? How does it compare to natural background in various places?

I still think you need an FAQ.
Paul Primavera said…

Jim Hoerner, moderator of the Know_Nukes message board, quantified the 0.02 uCi (or 20,000 pCi) as follows:

Drinking two liters per day of 20,000 picoCuries [pCi/L] per liter results
in about four milliREM per year. This is roughly equivalent to sleeping
closely with four other people. Much less than one dental X-ray. Less than one gets from living in a brick house. Less than some athletes get from drinking Gatorade. Talk about cover-up! :-) Wonderful thing about
radiation, it can be measured in trivially small amounts.

'Still, Exelon has offered financial settlements to 15 nearby property owners. Nesbit said last month that the company agreed to compensate the property owners because "we don't want these people to suffer any harm for something we did."'

- JH


Melissa Lakewood, moderator of the Safe_Clean_Nuclear_Power message board, pointed out the following which I found quite amusing:

Hey, they use tritium in gun sights all the time.

Oops, don't tell ebay that people are selling radioactive materials, they'll ban the auction! :-)
JasonSpalding said…
Does my watch have tritium on it too? It glows in the dark!
gunter said…
so guys...

what you're missing or perhaps still trying to obfuscate is the chronic exposure to low dose radiation (particularly through ingestion of tritiated water and organically bonded tritium (obt) in water and food as well as absorption through bathing and inhalation through showing.

This constant exposure then becomes part of an INTERNALIZED dose that cycles through the body. OBT in animal and plant tissue stays with the system for quite sometime.

Then that low energy beta gets to bang away at your DNA or after passing through the placenta developing cells.

Hey, now that we have BEIR VII, how about making the radiation standard
"Radiation Effective Pregnant Woman", guys.

Now there's a concept for making ALARA a little more "reasonable."

Anybody disagree with that?


This is the piece of the picture that has finally taken hold in the public consciousness.

Horse is out of the barn, fellas.

Paul Primavera said…
Paul Gunter,
I found the following data at:

(You'll probably have to go to th web link to see the tables properly.)

The food we eat and the substances that make up our bodies are all radioactive. Yours is nothing more than scare tactics.

Every food has some small amount of radioactivity in it. The common radionuclides in food are potassium 40 (40K), radium 226 (226Ra) and uranium 238 (238U) and the associated progeny. Here is a table of some of the common foods and their levels of 40K and 226Ra.
Natural Radioactivity in Food

Food 40K pCi/kg 226Ra pCi/kg

Banana 3,520 1
Brazil Nuts 5,600 1,000-7,000
Carrot 3,400 0.6-2
White Potatoes 3,400 1-2.5
Beer 390 ---
Red Meat 3,000 0.5
Lima Beanraw 4,640 2-5
Drinking water --- 0-0.17
Ref: Handbook of Radiation Measurement and Protection, Brodsky, A. CRC Press 1978 and Environmental Radioactivity from Natural, Industrial and Military Sources, Eisenbud, M and Gesell T. Academic Press, Inc. 1997.

Human body
You are made up of chemicals, and it should be of no surprise that some of them are radionuclides, many of which you ingest daily in your water and food. Here are the estimated concentrations of radionuclides calculated for a 70,000 gram adult based ICRP 30 data:
Natural Radioactivity in your body

Nuclide Total Mass of Nuclide Total Activity of Nuclide Daily Intake of Nuclides
Found in the Body Found in the Body

Uranium 90 µg 30 pCi (1.1 Bq) 1.9 µg
Thorium 30 µg 3 pCi (0.11 Bq) 3 µg
Potassium 40 17 mg 120 nCi (4.4 kBq) 0.39 mg
Radium 31 pg 30 pCi (1.1 Bq) 2.3 pg
Carbon 14 22 ng 0.1 µCi (3.7 kBq) 1.8 ng
Tritium 0.06 pg 0.6 nCi (23 Bq) 0.003 pg
Polonium 0.2 pg 1 nCi (37 Bq) ~0.6 fg
Anonymous said…
Despite the talk of "average concentrations of tritium in groundwater", one must question an industry which pumps radioactive waste into groundwater as part of their standard procedure - and only more so in an area such as this, where it seems a significant portion of the population is supplied by wells.

Additionally, the EPA's tritium standards are increasingly recognised as inadequate and should be no indicator of "safety". Indeed, as anyone who "knows the science" can tell you, there is no dose of radioactivity that does not carry risk - whether it's present in EXIT signs or the water you unsuspectingly drink.

Industries as destructive, wasteful and risky as nuclear and fossil fuels only seem to become more and more obsolete.
Paul Primavera said…

I intend no offense, however, your reaction is not rational. Radiation is an integral part of our lives. Even if there were no nuclear power plants, certain substances in the food we eat and within our own bodies are naturally radioactive.

As for the cancer risk from low level radiation, please read Dr. Bernard Cohen's article at:

As for how dangerous radiation is, please read what the good Doctor writes at:

The refuse dumped into the air we breathe from coal fired power plants kills 30,000 people per year in the US alone. Miniscule tritium releases from US commercial nuclear power plants have neither injured nor killed anyone. NOT ONE LIFE.

Now if you don't want fossil fuel power, then stop using your car.

If you don't want both fossil and nuclear power, then divorce your house from the electric grid and erect your own wind mill:

But I suspect that you are like the rest of us: you like low cost electricity from coal and nuclear power plants at 99.999% availability, and you like driving your gasoline or diesel fueled car.

You stated, "Industries as destructive, wasteful and risky as nuclear and fossil fuels only seem to become more and more obsolete." You voluntarily pay with your own money for the services of those 'obsolete' industries to keep the lights on in your house, to keep you warm in the winter, to get the food you eat, to transport you to work and church and school, and on and on and on. Freedom begins with your own pocket book.
gunter said…
Mr. Primareva,

Sounds like something from the
1950' offered to downwinders of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. You didnt happen to work for them, too?

Aging and cell death are natural as well but that does not mean that its a smart thing to speed up the aging process or increase your exposure to cellular damage. To the contrary, reducing cellular damage and slowing the aging process as avoiding the flu are all wise health choices.

In light of BEIR VII, its increasingly difficult for you to argue that more radiation exposure is good for you.
Paul Primavera said…
Paul Gunter,

I do not argue that more radiation exposure is necessarily 'good' for you, but that miniscule amounts are harmless or in fact may even have a slightly hormetic effect. That's eactly what Dr. Cohen points out on PDF page 5 at web link:

"In 1957, an explosion occurred in an incredibly mismanaged radioactive waste storage facility, the Mayak nuclear weapons complex in the eastern Urals of Siberia, then part of the Soviet Union. The explosion caused large radiation exposures to epople in some nearby villages. A followup study of 7852 exposed villagers found that their rate of cancer mortality was much lower than that of the unexposed villagers."

I will leave it to you to read the rest of Dr. Cohen's paper which gives more examples. Based on these, the LNT (Linear No Threshold) hypothesis is likely in error, something that the BEIR VII does not recognize. Here are a few more web links on radiation hormesis:

Radiation Hormesis Overview:

Radiation Hormesis: Demonstrated, Deconstructed, Denied, Dismissed and Some Implications for Public Policy:

Radiation Hormesis: The Demise of a Legitimate Hypothesis:

There are many more articles about this phenomenon. Some support the hypothesis of hormesis; some do not. Nevertheless, as I already pointed out, the generally accept hypothesis of Linear No Threshold no longer seems to be valid.

In fact, a very impressive account of hormesis may be found at:

I have excerpted the relevant news article below:

Living with radiation in Taiwan

Due to the accidental recycling of a cobalt-60 source in a steelworks, resulting in contaminated reinforcing steel, some 10,000 Taiwan residents received very high doses of radiation over many years and appear to have become largely immune to cancer as a result. The story of this "serendipitous experiment" (which would never have been allowed if it were planned) has been reported in international fora, and further studies have been recommended.

Over 1982-84, some 1700 apartments were built using reinforcing steel which was contaminated with cobalt-60. From 1992, the contamination was progressively discovered and the last of 1600 residents receiving more than 5 mSv/yr were removed in 2003. The Atomic Energy Commission made very detailed measurements and calculated doses for some 10,000 exposed residents. For the 1100 residents of heavily-contaminated apartments (receiving >15 mSv/yr in 1994), the mean annual dose to individuals in 1983 was estimated to have been 525 mSv/yr and the mean total dose to an individual (1983-2003) was estimated to be 4000 mSv. For the medium contamination group of 900 people (5-15 mSv/yr in 1994) these figures were 60 mSv/yr and 420 mSv respectively. Medical attention was available for all those exposed to more than 1 mSv/yr. Those most heavily exposed received careful medical examination, including chromosomal aberration analyses, but only reduced incidence of ill effects were found.

The Linear No-Threshold (LNT) model of radiation exposure would predict some 70 excess cancer deaths among the 10,000 people due to the chronic exposure over 20 years (on top of 217 normal cancer deaths). Instead, there were only 7 cancer deaths in total. Thus the cancer rate was only 3.24% of the Taiwan norm. The prevalence of hereditary defects in their offspring was also reduced, in this case to 6.5% of normal. The 14 authors of a study reporting these results suggested that it showed that chronic whole-body radiation "is always beneficial to human health, and shows particular promise in the promotion of immunity to cancers and hereditary diseases in relative higher doses in a manner similar to a vaccine." However, they said, acute exposure at similar levels would be expected to cause cancers, and in some cases radiation sickness.
Chen, W.L. et al, 2003, The beneficial health effects of chronic radiation experienced in the incident of Co-60 contaminated apartments in Taiwan. HPS paper.
Starvid, Sweden said…
Completely offtopic:

Please post something on the shutdown of the brand new 1358 MWe Shika-2 reactor in Ishikawa.

As far as I am concerned it is an immense scandal, no matter who is right.


1) The power company built an unsafe $3 billion reactor on top of a dangerous fault line


2) An uninformed partisan court ordered the shutdown of a perfectly safe $3 billion piece of machinery.

No matter which is true, it is an immense scandal!
Jim Hopf said…
I'm with Mike. Even assuming hormesis is not true, the EPA limits are insulting. Who drinks two liters of water every day anyway? And of course, it is "conservatively" assumed that all fluid intake is well water! And even under such extremely hypothetical circumstances, the annual exposure is only ~1% of natural background. Meanwhile, natural background doses vary by factors of several, with no correlation (between background exposure and cancer rates) ever observed.

Meanwhile, the "allowable" limits for fossil plant pollution allow ~30,000 people to die prematurely every single year, whereas nuclear plants (even w/ these tritium leaks) cause none. Yet, due to the massive double standard in regulations, nuclear is perceived as harmful and unsafe, and coal is not, because nuclear created "contamination" in excess of regulatory limits, whereas coal did not.

So a nuclear plant potentially exposes a small number of people to a dose known to be orders of magnitude below what would be required to have any effect, and yet they still bend over backwards and offer bottled water and to buy out properties, even though it is clear that the leak will cause no harm (i.e., even though none of these actions are necessary)!! Meanwhile, even though it is known that coal plants are actually causing tens of thousand of premature deaths as well as global warming, they've never done anything to try and mitigate the harm or compensate people for the effects.

Anonymous' suggestion that nuclear power should be eliminated even though it has NOT ever hurt anyone (over negligible, hypothetical "pollution problems") would be simply humorous, if the repercussions weren't so serious. Nuclear would be replaced primarily by coal, which will have thousands of times the effect on public health and the environment. As we speak, ~50 GW of new coal capacity is being build in this country.
Jim Hopf said…
In response to gunter, on tritium doses and health effects, and the use of LNT:

When we say that 0.02 uCi/liter would cause an annual dose rate of 4 mrem/year, we're fully including all of the biological and anatomical effects that you discuss (including radionuclide residence time), and more. This is a science that is extremely well understood. BTW, any dose rate from immersion (showering, etc...) is known to be drawfed by the dose from ingestion (drinking) of that same water.

Concerning, LNT, the EPA limits for nuclear are hypocritical and indefensible even if LNT were assumed. Even w/o a threshold, it is indefensible to strictly enforce tiny exposure limits for the nuclear industry, and the nuclear industry only, while completely ignoring collective exposures thousands to millions of times as high that occur from living in higher natural background areas, getting medical treatments, radon, flying, etc.... Not only does EPA not enforce against these infinitely higher exposures, they don't even really tell/warn the public about them.

Going back (once again) to coal, even though radioactivity is one of its least harmful emissions, the overall radioactivity of coal plant emissions are several orders of magnitude larger than that from any tritium releases at US nuclear plants. And this radioactivity effectively lasts forever, as opposed to decaying with a ~12 tear half-life, as does tritium.

Simply put, we are tired of having negligible nuclear-realated problems being massively trumped up, and hearing calls for even greater requirements being placed on nuclear, when health risks from other energy sources that are thousands of times greater are routinely ignored (along with vastly greater collective radiation exposures from other sources).

It's time to level the playing field.
Mike said…
They pick at a mote while they have a beam in their own eye.
Anonymous said…
This is a reply to Paul Primavera's comment. I am realistic about nuclear power. It has its advantages and disadvantages, just like all energy sources. However, the science of the supporters and opponents of nuclear power is extraordinarily sloppy.

The problem with the Japanese cancer figures is that the people exposed to radiation are assumed to be selected randomly, but they are not. The people are all located in a relatively small number of apartment buildings (relative compared to how many apartment buildings are found in Taiwan). Differences between the inhabitants of the apartments and the average Taiwanese person could have resulted in a huge difference in the cancer death rate expected without radiation exposure. For example, one of the apartment buildings may have been populated by mostly young people because it had a modern design and/or was in an area with a lot of young people. Young people would be far more likely to have not died from cancer over the time period studied. Another apartment building may have been populated by people who take care of their health by eating well, not smoking and exercising. They would be less likely to die from cancer than the average person in Taiwan. Another apartment building may have been populated by wealthy people, which is a particularly likely scenario because of the different levels of luxury in apartment buildings. Wealthy people are able to see their doctors more often, which allows cancer to be caught sooner, which allows a much higher survival rate. Also, they are able to pay for insurance, and perhaps treatments not covered by insurance.

Other reasons for the difference include the apartments being in a cleaner area of Taiwan, with less pollution. Also, the type of people who live in apartments in Taiwan might be different from those who live in houses, further skewing the results.

Living in an apartment probably reduces the rate of lung cancer due to radon exposure. Modern apartment buildings have good ventilation, which would limit exposure (these were modern buildings, as they were built from 1982 to 1984). Also, even if the lower floors had some radon exposure, it would probably be greatly reduced with each additional floor.

However, given the ridiculously small number of cancer deaths, I suspect that something went seriously wrong with the study, such as deaths not being reported as cancer. The most likely problem is that the researchers just did not find the vast majority of people who died of cancer.

An even stronger reason for suspecting that the study is nonsense is the fact that the results of the study are not supported by other cases of radiation exposure. Some areas have very high levels of natural radiation, but they have not experienced greatly reduced cancer rates compared to a similar population with a low radiation level. Comparing to a similar population is very important because of the huge variation in cancer death rates depending on ethnicity, age, diet, amount of exercise, smoking and health care. Radiation accidents, such as the Chernobyl disaster, have not resulted in reduced cancer deaths, either. Also, thyroid cancer, increased greatly after the Chernobyl disaster.

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