NRC only partially informs public about low risk of tritium

Update I checked the NRC blog to find out that the comment that is the main subject of this post had not been approved by the moderator. I edited it to remove the supporting links and made a couple of other minor changes. It appeared right away.

I have learned a valuable lesson; on many blogs, conversation can only take place without included links due to the inevitable delays associated with moderation. Spammers have damaged a valuable information tool, but we can live and learn.End Update.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) blog has an interesting post titled EXIT — A Good Sign of Radiation that takes a baby step toward helping the public understand that radioactive materials have special, valuable properties.

People need information about the value of radioactive material as well as a reasonable explanation of whatever risks might have to be assumed in order to access that value. It is only then that we can make rational decisions that properly weigh the rewards against the risk.

In the case of tritium exit signs, the NRC’s communication staff has properly explained the following:

Look for the EXIT sign the next time you go to work, school, a sporting event, religious service, the movies, or the mall. If the sign glows green or red, chances are it contains a radioactive gas called tritium. The tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, is sealed into glass tubes lined with a chemical that glows in the dark. Tritium emits low-energy radiation that cannot penetrate paper or clothing and even if inhaled, it leaves the body relatively quickly. As long as the tubes remain sealed, the signs pose no health, safety, or security hazard.

(Emphasis added.)

However, the article is missing several features that could have made it even more useful for a public that is constantly barraged with purposeful misinformation by people whose mission is to spread unwarranted fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) about the use of nuclear energy. I provided the following comment. I suspect it will not appear for a few hours because it includes supporting links; any comment with links logically requires moderator effort to prevent hazardous spam.

Since I control this particular communication venue, I can provide you with quicker access to the thoughts I shared with the NRC. Besides, I like to collect these kinds of comments in a searchable location so they can be accessible for later use.

Some numbers would be informative. They might help people understand more about the exceedingly low hazard of tritium, despite all publicity to the contrary in an attempt to make nuclear plant operators look bad.

A typical exit sign might contain 7 curies of H3 (tritium is just hydrogen with two extra neutrons). Though Arnie Gundersen loudly criticized Vermont Yankee for leaking tritium to the environment from their off gas system, the TOTAL quantity of tritium that entered the ground underneath the plant was approximately 0.35 curies and that material was diluted in 138,000 liters of water.

Here is a post showing my math.

How much tritium leaked from Vermont Yankee before the leak was stopped?

In other words, a typical tritium sign contains about 20 times as much radioactive material as was leaked into the environment from a very well publicized slow leak from a licensed nuclear power plant.

It would be wonderful if the NRC communications branch would provide these kinds of numbers to enable the public to understand the relative risks of something that is routinely accepted versus something that is blown way out of proportion for nefarious reasons.

Instead, the NRC’s reaction was to have the Chairman sit down with people like Gundersen to show how concerned the NRC was about the very minor leaks. Not only that, but the NRC forced the plant owners to engage in time consuming and expensive remediation efforts.

I neglected to provide a link backing up my statement that exit signs might contain 7 curies of tritium. Yes Vermont Yankee included that number in an August 23, 2011 post titled A Lengthy Debate and a Short Post about Mystery Stories.

About Rod Adams

3 Responses to “NRC only partially informs public about low risk of tritium”

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  1. James Greenidge says:

    Re: “It would be wonderful if the NRC communications branch would provide these kinds of numbers to enable the public to understand the relative risks of something that is routinely accepted versus something that is blown way out of proportion for nefarious reasons.”

    Telling passage! I wish nuclear professional organizations like ANS and NEI and others would take up the mantle if just for their own self-interest and lodge such concerns to the NRC about this. I am perpetually bemused by the ineptness/incompetence of the PR offices of near all nuclear agencies and organizations to get coherent and roundedly informative messages out, forget actual public education. If this weren’t so, nuclear energy’s regard and progress in this country wouldn’t be so damned dicey.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  2. John Englert says:

    Or perhaps a comparison of what comes out of the waste stream (the toilet) at most hospitals that have an oncology department?

    I believe the EPA should step in and communicate to the public the extent that the H3 leaks are such a non-hazard. They could rank order in terms of public health risks, the many industrial chemicals that get spilled into the environment. I bet H3 wouldn’t even make it into the top 100.

  3. John Tucker says:

    Oh God ive had the Vermont Yankee tritium leak brought up in argument like it was a US Chernobyl; as if the Anti Nukes needed something else to make them look even more unbelievably ignorant.