Tritium at Indian Point

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 in the normal operations of nuclear reactors. It 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. That means the weak radioactive emissions from tritium can be blocked by the skin. However, if it is inhaled or ingested it’s 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.”

The tritium at Indian Point is concentrated in the water of the fuel pools where the highly radioactive used fuel rods were 


What to do with this contaminated water is a problem that must be solved as part of the clean up of the site. Holtec anticipates this will have to be done in August of 2023.

Holtec claims that the radioactive tritium in the pools is below the annual discharge permitted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The nuclear expert on the DOB has looked at this and said it was acceptable to discharge the tritated water according to industry standards.

While mathematically accurate these calculations do not reflect the vagaries of the ebb and flow of currents in the River. Batch releases over time would seem to increase the contamination of certain areas, probably those closer to shore. The regulations do not take into consideration the seven communities that draw their water from the Hudson. Nor does it take into consideration the effects on fish, wildlife. Boaters, swimmers and the children who play on the shore are equally neglected.

Irina Rypina, a Woods Hole researcher, has completed a study about discharging tritiated water from the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant into Cape Cod Bay. The Hudson River and Cape Cod Bay are two very different water bodies and are not easily compared. However, currents and other natural effects were taken into account in her study. The conclusion is that further research should be done before it can be concluded that no harm is being done. A study like this for Indian Point would be very useful.

In addition to tritium, the fuel pool water has been contaminated from exposure to other highly radioactive elements from the fuel rods. It is critical to understand what is in this mixture and how other high level radioactive isotopes will be treated before any decisions are made to release it into the River.

There are other options:

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 also 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, so it can be done.

The Environmental Protection Agency has released a Cumulative Research Impacts study that talks about the necessity of “co-exposure to determinants of health” for communities. 

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

The study suggests that individual acts of pollution need to be taken in a larger context and community voices listened too. 

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 discovered. Storing the water in well designed double lined tanks for 10 half lives or 125 years would allow most of the tritium to decay. A drainage system to catch any leaks could be part of the design as was done for fuel pool 1 before it was emptied.

The Hudson River is a living ecosystem that has been repeatedly poisoned over the decades with industrial waste. It is time to stop.

Marilyn Elie

Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition


April 2023