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

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, 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” for 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 commingled 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 February 29th at 6 PM in person.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:

Marilyn Elie
Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition