There have been a lot of questions lately about tritium and nuclear power plants. As the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will meet next week with the Vermont public, there are some facts about tritium we thought should be clarified because open discussion and transparency are essential in any conversation on energy. As nuclear energy’s role continues to grow in the United States, we know that there are areas where questions may arise, and we want to maintain an open discussion and forum.
The issue of tritium raised quite a few questions lately, but without sufficient public information. First and foremost, safety and the environment are the most important consideration at any reactor site. The nuclear energy industry could not exist if our stakeholders did not believe in the safety of our operations. The industry understands the potential risks involved and that is why most stringent rules are applied. Tritium does not pose an inherent risk to the public, but AREVA is working with the industry to provide enhanced nuclear fuel and preventative leak measures that proactively re-enforce the level of precaution already taken.
As part of this conversation, we think it’s important to share what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Energy Institute have to say on the topic of Tritium, to get the facts straight.
What is Tritium and what does it come from?
Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen that is produced naturally in the upper atmosphere. It is also a byproduct of nuclear electricity production.
What is tritium used for?
Tritium is produced commercially in reactors. It is used in various self-luminescent devices, such as exit signs in buildings, aircraft dials, gauges, luminous paints, and wristwatches. Tritium is also used in life science research, and in studies investigating the metabolism of potential new drugs.
Tritium and the environment?
Tritium occurs naturally in the environment in very low concentrations. Most tritium in the environment is in the form of tritiated water, which easily disburses in the atmosphere, water bodies, soil, and rock.
Tritium decays over time with a relatively short half-life of 12.3 years and is one of the least hazardous radionuclides because it emits weak radiation and leaves the body relatively quickly.
For the tritium deriving from nuclear power plants, companies that operate nuclear power plants monitor radiation levels at the plant sites and their surrounding areas for possible releases. Companies annually report allowable plant discharges and the results of environmental monitoring to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In addition, the NRC conducts periodic on-site inspections of each company’s environmental monitoring programs to ensure compliance with the agency’s requirements.
The nuclear energy industry is committed to operating its plants safely and to protecting the environment.
Environmental limits on tritium in water
The EPA’s safe limit for tritium found in drinking water is 20,000 picoCurie (2 nanograms of tritium) per liter of water. To put this figure into perspective, if a person were to ingest water with a tritium concentration right at this regulated limit, once equilibrated in the body, the dose that this person would receive is the equivalent to 1.4 milliRem/year. This figure can be compared to the dose produced by the naturally occurring isotope of potassium, Potassium-40, present in the human body. The average person naturally contains a level of the 140 grams (or 120,000 picoCurie) of Potassium-40 which contributes about 18 milliRem/year for the human body.
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