Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2021
By Ian Fairlie
Tritium decays via beta particle emissions and can be more dangerous than most X-rays. It has a radioactive half-life of 12.3 years. While most of its atoms will have decayed in ten half-lives (123 years), many scientists believe it might take 20 half-lives (246 years) or more to reach safe levels. The safety of tritium after centuries depends partly on how much was emitted, since a small fraction of a large amount can still be very hazardous.
Tritium’s gaseous form, tritium oxide (i.e., radioactive water or radioactive water vapor), enters the body by inhalation, ingestion, or absorption through the skin. Tritium in the body immediately mixes with body fluids and is dispersed widely because water is found everywhere in our bodies. Once inside the body, it becomes organically bound and can concentrate in cells and certain organs.
Because of its long half-life, it resides in tissues and organs for extended periods. This can increase cancers and congenital malformations for those living near nuclear facilities.
For most of the 20th century, tritium was often dismissed as a “weak” radionuclide which led many to underestimate its hazards. All this changed in the 21st century when scientists began to realize that tritium is much more dangerous than previously suspected. Although tritium is a low-range beta [particle] emitter, it can be very harmful as an internal emitter (when it gets inside the body). … It is also quite dangerous because it remains in the body for long periods.
Studies reveal that tritium is one of the most common internal emitters found in humans. As an internal emitter, tritium can alter cellular DNA and cause a variety of damaging health effects. One of the most significant effects is cancer which sometimes takes years to develop. Many epidemiological studies have reported increases in cancers and congenital malformations among people living near nuclear facilities.
The new concern about tritium is partly because all nuclear facilities emit very large amounts of tritium. In its elemental form, tritium diffuses through most containers, including those made of steel and concrete. Tritium is difficult to contain, and in its oxide form it is generally not detected by commonly used survey instruments. … large amounts are produced in nuclear reactors. It contaminates the concrete structures at nuclear power reactors so that the older the station, the more the contamination. Large amounts of tritium continue to be released for decades after a reactor is closed.
We now know that tritium has an exceptionally high molecular exchange rate with stable hydrogen atoms thus making it extremely mobile in the environment. Emissions from nuclear facilities can rapidly contaminate all biota in adjacent areas. Tritium binds with organic matter to form organically bound tritium.
Tritium is the only one of the three hydrogen isotopes that is radioactive. It is an essential component of every nuclear weapon.
— Dr. Ian Fairlie is a radiation biologist and author of “The Other Chernobyl Report,” updated as “TORCH-2016: An independent scientific evaluation of the health-related effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster,” of March 2016