Date of this version: August 18th, 2006 (Third release; superceeds January 25th, 2006)

Copyright (c) Russell  "Ace" Hoffman


Tritium users, producers, and regulators assert that tritium is "only" killing two in every ten million people (as if that can be ignored).  Put another way, the nuclear industry estimates that there are 0.003 fatal cancers per million people per year caused by tritium, and wishes society would ignore even those deaths.

But the actual death rate from tritium could be much higher than officially estimated, as will be argued below.  There are places where the local concentration of tritium is a thousand times -- or more -- higher than average.  The more susceptible members of our population are a hundred times or more, more susceptible to radiation's ill effects than the rest of us.  Therefore, in some groups of people, tritium could be routinely killing a much greater percentage of people -- as many as a thousand times a hundred times more than the official estimate, or 200,000 in every ten million -- one in every 50 people.  Tritium could be doing this TODAY, and we wouldn't even know it.  And in addition to causing fatal cancers, tritium, at legal limits of contamination, or at ANY level, damages and sickens us all, although it is usually only the lifetime risk of fatal cancers and "gross genetic defects" for two generations (mother, child) which are tracked and studied at all.

Tritium is something we should all educate ourselves about and understand -- what it is and how it hurts us.  This newsletter provides an in-depth look at tritium, along with some basic background information.

Russell "Ace" Hoffman
Concerned Citizen
Carlsbad, CA



(1) Important notes to readers
(2) Some very basic physics and chemistry concepts to bear in mind during this discussion
(3) Part one: Why EPA's tritium standard for drinking water (20,000 pCi/l) is undoubtedly way too lax, & a suggested new standard
(4) Part two: Additional information about tritium
(5) Basic facts about tritium
(6) Medical effects of tritium
(7) Sources of tritium
(8) Additional information about tritium (courtesy Ms Blockey-O'Brien)
(9) Sources of ionizing radiation
(10) URL for this author's previous essay on tritium
(11) Glossary of acronyms and abbreviations used in this document
(12) Contact information for the author of this document; URL for this document

(1) Important notes to readers:

Many numbers are presented in this newsletter.  These are based on extensive "meta-research" (research about research, including reading articles, books, interviewing scientists, studying news reports, etc.).  As you read this document, you might want to write down those numbers which seem important to you, or you might want to print this newsletter out so you can highlight things, and if all else fails, please contact the author if you have any questions.


A word for people intimidated by math, physics, chemistry, biology, and most of all, statistics:

You don't need to be the head of Purdue University's Nuclear Engineering Department to read this essay, and comprehend why I am advocating what I am advocating.  It does happen that this essay IS written specifically FOR Purdue's Head of Nuclear Engineering (Dr. Lefteri H. Tsoukalas), but please don't stop at the first "ten to the something power" (represented here with a carat ("^").  I've provided nearly every important number several different ways.  We all need to understand tritium's peculiar interactions with biological systems.  We need to understand both the quantity and the quality of the damage tritium does.


And a word about all the experts' numbers:

Some of them conflict, are very confusing as to their exact meaning, or are, at the very least, deserving of a lot of speculation as to their accuracy.  Every number presented here has been transcribed very carefully from the original sources, or, where appropriate, calculated and recalculated several times to ensure accuracy.  Some of the official so-called "global" values serve as little more than a complete whitewash of the dangers of locally higher contamination levels around nuclear facilities and downstream / downwind from them.  Other times, confusion is probably due to exacting technical points.  For example, the amount of tritium in deep water is expressed in several ways which appear to conflict, but this is probably due to each estimators' assumptions about whether the various containers dumped at sea have breached and released their contents to the biosphere, or were dumped where they were reported to be placed, contained the quantities listed, etc. etc..


What other sources of ionizing radiation are out there?

I have tried to account for the outrageousness of the improper Hiroshima studies, and a few other missing considerations specifically about tritium, and I have attempted to apply these considerations to the current situation, as they should have been applied in the first place.  Tritium is just one of many byproducts of the nuclear fuel cycle.  It is being made an example of here.  By no means is it the only poison spewing forth from our nuclear power plants, or even the worst, but for too long it has been ignored as a serious threat.  Regarding the infamous ABCC (Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission), they did not study "internal emitters" at all.  They began most data collection no sooner than 1950, five years after the bombs were dropped, so they missed everybody who had died prior to that time.  Nagasaki was especially ignored.  Alice Stewart described the documented people as the "healthy survivors" of the bombings.

Russell "Ace" Hoffman
Concerned Citizen
Carlsbad, CA

(2) Some very basic physics concepts to bear in mind during this discussion:

Author: "Ace" Hoffman

In the Periodic Table of Elements, each element is defined by the number of protons in its nucleus. The first element, with one proton, is hydrogen, and the second element, with two protons, is helium.  Three protons defines the element Lithium, and four, Beryllium.  Five is Boron, six is Carbon, and so on up through the table.  Uranium has 92 protons in its nucleus and is generally considered the heaviest naturally-occurring element, although about two dozen additional, even heavier, elements have been artificially produced (as of 2006), and trace amounts of naturally-occurring plutonium, with 94 protons in its nucleus, have also been found.

Besides at least one proton in its nucleus, each atom of each element (above hydrogen) also has at least one neutron in its nucleus, too.  Different numbers of neutrons define different isotopes of each element, as long as the number of protons stays the same.  The most common isotope of Uranium has 146 neutrons and, of course, 92 protons, so it is called U-238.

For each proton in the nucleus of the atom, normally there is one electron orbiting around the nucleus of the atom.  Chemical behavior of each element is largely determined by the electrons which surround the nucleus.

Protons and neutrons are relatively heavy.  Electrons are relatively light.  Each electron is about 1/1,840th the mass of a proton or neutron.  An electron weighs 0.00055 Atomic Mass Units.  An isolated proton weighs 1.0073 AMU.  An isolated neutron weighs 1.0086 AMU (about 0.14% more than the proton) and spontaneously decays, with a half-life of about 10 minutes (614 seconds) by emitting a beta particle and simultaneously transforming itself into a nucleus of normal hydrogen (i.e., a single proton).

When "bound" with other protons and neutrons into the nucleus of an atom, some of the weight of the protons and neutrons is converted to energy (binding energy).  An Atomic Mass Unit is based on the average weight of all the protons and neutrons in carbon-12, which has six protons and six neutrons in its nucleus.

Protons have a positive electrical charge.  Electrons have an equal but opposite (negative) electrical charge.  Neutrons have no electrical charge.

The most common isotope of the most common element in the universe (hydrogen) has no neutrons in its nucleus -- only the one proton.  Another isotope of hydrogen, called deuterium, has a single neutron in addition to the single proton in the nucleus.  Deuterium is relatively rare -- only about 0.015% of all hydrogen on earth is the isotope deuterium.  Both isotopes are stable (not radioactive).  Water which has been processed to have a higher concentration of deuterium in it than normal is called "heavy water." Some nuclear reactors use "heavy water" to moderate the reactor.  Both types of U.S. commercial nuclear reactors use normal or so-called "light water."

Another, even rarer, isotope of hydrogen has two neutrons in the nucleus in addition to the single proton.  That isotope IS radioactive, with a half-life of about 12.4 years.  That isotope is called tritium (abbreviated "3H" (or "H-3" or several other variations) or alternatively, "T").

When tritium decays, it expels an electron, but it's not the electron that is normally orbiting the nucleus.  Rather, tritium creates an electron from one of the neutrons in its nucleus, at the same time converting that neutron into a proton.  (An anti-neutrino is also created, but its existence is not relevant to this discussion.)  With the ejection of the electron, the hydrogen (tritium) atom becomes a (stable) helium atom, the next element in the Periodic Table, with two protons and one neutron in its nucleus (normal helium is also stable, and has two neutrons (and two protons) in its nucleus).

The expelled electron has enormous speed as it leaves the atom, and is called a "beta" particle.  A beta particle is no different from any other electron, other than its speed, which it eventually loses as it collides over and over with other atoms.

(3) Part one: Why EPA's tritium standard for drinking water (20,000 pCi/l) is undoubtedly way too lax, & a suggested new standard:

Author: "Ace" Hoffman

At least 1000 Curies of tritium is released per year per reactor, for a typical operating commercial nuclear reactor in today's world.  Chernobyl and Three Mile Island (and perhaps a few other major events) are NOT included in this tally.

1000 Curies of tritium is NOT trivial.  It is enough tritium to bring over 13 billion gallons of water to the EPA limit of 20,000 picoCuries per liter.  Even more tritium is produced -- and is ultimately released -- to meet the economic convenience of the nuclear weapons industry.  Add the releases from nuclear power plants to the releases from nuclear weapons and a few other sources (see below) and it's clear that tritium is polluting our environment.  The nuclear industry claims it is responsible for less than 0.01% of our total ionizing radiation burden, including not only all the tritium they release, but also all of the other releases of ionizing radiation byproducts during the nuclear fuel cycle.  But those in favor of using nuclear power employ numerous statistical "techniques" to minimize the apparent danger.  The total global tritium pollution might actually be much higher, and the pollution to local environments can CERTAINLY be MUCH higher -- perhaps by a factor of 100, or even 1,000 or more.  If the local pollution were off by a factor of one thousand (if the local tritium pollution is 1000 times worse than the global average), it would mean that your local nuclear power plant could be contributing a very significant portion of the radiation you are absorbing.  During your lifetime, all radiation exposure is cumulative.  There are also issues of how the exposure occurs:  All at once, spread out evenly over time, in discrete and separate doses, from internal emitters or not, mixed with various synergistic chemical exposures, and so forth.

COULD your local nuclear power facility be poisoning you at a rate 1000 times worse than average?  Absolutely -- and you wouldn't even know it.  Tritium can only be detected with very sophisticated equipment.  The average ("natural, background" level of tritium) before the nuclear age was about one tritium breakdown every 3 or 4 seconds per liter of surface water, and one thousandth as much in deep water.  In the United States the permissible tritium standard for drinking water is thousands of times higher -- 20,000 picoCuries per liter (equals 740 nuclear breakdowns per second per liter, or 740 Becquerel ("Bq") per liter).  The actual level globally for fresh water varies of course, but has been found as high as 50 Bq per liter, which is several hundred times more than "natural, background" originally was.   (Note: When the NRC talks about "background radiation" they are usually referring to the current amount of ALL radiation in the environment as of the last annual measurements, including both natural and man-made sources, but occasionally excluding anything they want if it suits their purpose (such as excluding Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, and possibly other events, from the average annual tritium release figures for civilian nuclear power plants).)

Is the current EPA limit tough enough?  Not by a long shot.  The EPA limit is based mainly on Hiroshima bomb victim studies, as are essentially all radiation-dose health-effects calculations by official groups such as EPA, BEIR, UNSCEAR, ICRP, etc..  Those studies were extremely biased.  For example, ANY infant or child 5 years old or younger, who died in Hiroshima after The Bomb was SIMPLY NOT COUNTED.  Stillbirths were not counted, even when the public health officials heard about them.  Spontaneous abortions were not counted.  Deformed babies who were born and lived only a few minutes were not counted.  And yet it is from these horrifically biased studies that the 20,000 pCi/l drinking water standard was developed.  For the most part, the standard for tritium is based on the effect of external radiation on otherwise healthy 15 to 40 year old males -- the least susceptible of all populations to radiation's biological damage!

But it gets much, much worse.  Not only do the standards ignore all those souls -- those unborn deformities that never saw the light of day, those cuddly little two-year-olds, those walking, talking five-year-olds -- but, in addition to cutting all these people out of the record, in the case of tritium the officials have also ignored two very important secondary effects:

3He and HO.

3He is the after-effect of the tritium decay itself -- the "heavy" hydrogen atom with two extra neutrons becomes a "light" helium atom (3He) with only one neutron and in search of a couple of electrons.  It's particularly damaging because it WILL pull electrons from other atoms, producing free radicals.  And it starts out at about 1 to 3 electron volts.  Each electron volt equals 11,650 degrees Kelvin, energy which must be dissipated in your cells.  This thermally "hot" helium atom can ruin molecules it runs into, breaking them, flipping them (creating mirror images of the original molecule), and so forth, until it cools down.

The other important thing that is usually created when the tritium atom in HTO (tritiated water) decays, along with the 3He and the beta particle, is HO.  HO is a particularly nasty free-radical because it will bounce around in your body, stealing electrons off of other things, disrupting delicate chemical processes including DNA replication in your cells, until something (such as a Vitamin C molecule) locks it up and renders it harmless.

These two problems are particular to tritium.  Other radioactive substances produce other free radicals, for example, but HO is an especially reactive "molecular fragment" and to make things worse, in dealing with the HO, the body often makes hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), which can be very damaging if it's not in the right place.  (Cells do have peroxisomes (little bags which can safely contain hydrogen peroxide), but the odds are against the H2O2 forming there.  Some cells in the body actually poison invading cells with H2O2 to kill them, so obviously, you don't want this stuff any more than you wanted the HO or the 3He, or the beta particle.)

The effects of 3He and HO are ignored if one only looks at the "radiation" effects on Hiroshima bomb victims, and especially only the effects of external radiation.  In other words, one needs to ask, how much of each Hiroshima victim's radiation exposure was from tritium?  But there is no way, now, to know.  Only the wildest of guesses can be made.

Combining these issues, this author believes that the 20,000 pCi/l limit for drinking water should be lowered to less than 70 pCi/l.  This is based on the following reasoning:  That the failure, during the aftermath of Hiroshima, to adequately study the deaths of infants and small children, to count spontaneous abortions and all the rest, is easily worth at least two orders of magnitude (X100) in its effect on the data the standard is based upon.  Dr. Helen Caldicott has stated that infants are at least 100 times more susceptible to radiation's ill effects than adults are.  Other scientists agree.  We are obliged to set the standards for tritium at what is necessary to protect the most susceptible among us -- our future, as it turns out -- our oocytes, ovum, fetuses, infants, and children.

Reducing the allowable limit for drinking water by two orders of magnitude would force the 20,000 pCi/l standard down to 200 pCi/l.  If you then try to account for the additional, but usually ignored, effects of tritium's decay -- the dangers of "excited" 3He and of the free radical HO -- you must reduce this number still further.  If you give equal weight to each effect, you get one third of the previous value, or 66.666... picoCuries per liter of water as the proposed maximum allowable limit.

This figure can, of course, be argued and debated, and more and more tests on animals, or epidemiological studies on tritiated humans, can be done, which might suggest whether it is reasonable.  Even this proposed new standard is probably way too high, but the available literature read by, and expert opinions heard by, this author suggest that it is an easily justifiable change, which will save thousands of lives.  Tritium kills, and what it doesn't kill it damages.

Retired Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories staff scientist Dr. Marion Fulk states: "The nuclear industry -- and the Department of Energy -- are not mandated by their charters to protect the human genome and the process of evolution."  That's too bad.  They should be.

Abbott and Mix (Health Physics Vol. 36, 1979) studied damage to goose barnacles, and found radiation effects from tritium was discernable at levels that would suggest the current standard is at least three times too high (in other words, 20,000 pCi/l standard for drinking water should be lowered to something more like 7,000 pCi/l).  (Note: In California, Prop 65, a regulation which requires warning labels for the public when hazardous substances are present, specifically excludes radiation's effects.  Thus, this study cannot be used in California's courts to force a lower tritium standard.  The Federal EPA gave in long ago -- they almost let the nuclear industry raise the standard to 60,000 picoCuries per liter!)

No matter how you look at it, tritium standards are absurdly high.  A lot of damage to humanity is occurring because so much tritium is being legally released into our environment.  As long as nuclear power plants exist, the nuclear industry cannot stop the creation of tritium (although some plants are set up to produce excess quantities of the stuff, in order to supply tritium to the nuclear weapons industry).  If the nuclear industry is going to continue to operate, it needs to be allowed to release tritium, so it needs the public to believe tritium is harmless.  That is why we are told that tritium's decay is "low energy," and that the nuclear industry's tritium releases are "harmless and close to background."

Prior to the nuclear age, "background" was less than one tenth of one percent of what the EPA standard for drinking water currently allows.  Everything above the pre-nuclear age amount is unnatural, and the vast majority is also unnecessary.  All tritium, from any source, is harmful.

Russell "Ace" Hoffman
Concerned Citizen
Carlsbad, CA

(4) Part two: Additional information about tritium:

Author:  "Ace" Hoffman

A reminder: At least 1000 Curies of tritium is released per year per reactor, for a typical operating commercial nuclear reactor in today's world.  Chernobyl and Three Mile Island (and perhaps a few other major events) are NOT included in this tally.

Tritium in our environment can destroy 5 trillion+ chemical bonds in each person's body every day and that's OKAY with the EPA!  The nuclear industry has advocated raising this number to 15 trillion per day!

In a good year, a properly operating PWR or BWR reactor might only release 300 Curies of tritium.  But I've yet to find a reactor that doesn't average about one bad year in every 10, at the best.  And for tritium releases, a bad year (for a light water reactor) can mean 10,000 Curies of tritium -- or more -- being released.  This is the amount Dr. Tsoukalas of Purdue University describes as "slight," as well as saying that: "Light water reactors are not producing any measurably worrisome quantities."  I find these quantities both measurable (as much as one can find the data, that is) and worrisome, especially since nearly every large release ends up not being very carefully measured at all, almost inevitably and as if by design.

One thousand Curies of tritium is enough to bring exactly 50,000,000,000 (fifty billion) liters of water (more than 13 billion gallons) to the EPA limit for drinking water of 20 billionths of a Curie per liter (20,000 picoCuries per liter).  So a typical nuclear power plant, in a typical year, poisons about 13 billion gallons of water with tritium right up to the EPA limit, or perhaps it poisons 130 billion gallons at a tenth of that limit, or perhaps even 1.3 trillion gallons at a hundredth of that limit, and so do approximately 440 other civilian nuclear power plants -- and hundreds more military and research reactors.  That's a lot of poisoned water and/or air and/or land.

Some scientists -- who have studied tritium very carefully -- feel that the tritium limit should be much, much lower.  Prior to the nuclear age, "background" (which Dr. Tsoukalas claims the releases from American PWR and BWR reactors to barely be above), was less than ONE tritium decay per liter per second -- more like 1/2 or 1/4 count per liter per second, and even THAT activity was only on the surface of any body of water.  Any deep water would have held 1/1000th that amount of tritium.  Then along came the AEC, and then the DOE and the NRC and the Russian equivalents and so forth.  The DOE's various activities alone have resulted in the release of tens of millions of Curies of tritium.

The EPA limit for tritium in water results in an allowable 740 nuclear disintegrations of tritium per second per liter (let alone all other disintegrations of other radioactive elements that might be present in the water).  When we drink that water, that tritium burden destroys, each second, millions of ligand bonds within our bodies, because a chemical bond is so weak when compared to a nuclear disintegration of any sort, including tritium.  Even though a tritium decay is thousands of times weaker than some other radioactive decays, it is still thousands of times STRONGER than a typical chemical bond.

A single tritium decay has the potential to destroy at least 2,000 chemical bonds, because of the relative strength of any chemical bond in your body versus the energy of a tritium decay's beta particle.  Perhaps that's 2,000 protein sequences or DNA sequences or some other complex and amazing structure within our bodies.

740 decays per second per liter is thus equal to about 1,500,000 destroyed chemical bonds per second per liter.  Multiply that times about 40 liters (the amount of water in a typical adult male human body) and that's about 60,000,000 (sixty million) chemical bonds in one person's body which are being destroyed per second every second of their life.  That's about 5,200,000,000,000 (over five trillion) bonds every day, and this could be legally happening to all 7,000,000,000 (seven billion) people on the planet every day, so the nuclear industry can release tritium into the air and water around every nuclear power plant, good year and bad, day in and day out, and so the nuclear weapons industry can maintain the readiness of its nuclear weapons arsenals.  More than five trillion bonds destroyed in just one person in just one day, thanks to the EPA, the nuclear power industry, and the nuclear weapons industry!

Because our bodies are about 70% water and we replenish nearly all the water in our bodies every week or so (by drinking liquids, eating partially hydrated foods, and by absorption of water directly through our skin), the biological half-life of tritium (about 10 days) may be of relatively little significance, at least to this discussion, except when someone suddenly ingests some amount above their local "background" level (as Dr. Tsoukalas uses the term).  Normally by the time the tritium leaves our bodies, we will have ingested more tritiated water, giving us a "steady-state" level of tritium in our bodies.  As Dr. Tsoukalas noted in his letters to me (which prompted this newsletter about tritium), tritium will go through steel (also aluminum, glass, etc.).  It will also cross the placental barrier.  One tritium atom could do a lot of damage to a zygote or young fetus, especially since the track of tritium's beta decay particle in the human body -- typically less than 0.5 micrometers -- is much smaller than the diameter of a typical human cell (unlike the biological track of a gamma emission, which might be several inches in the human body).  The beta particle released during the radioactive decay of a tritium atom, being extremely light (compared to the nucleus of any atom), doesn't get very far because it bounces around a lot on its way to ending up as just a single loose electron.  As it bangs around it can do multiple damage within a single DNA sequence or within a single cell.

Most nuclear weapons use tritium, which decays at the rate of about 5.6% per year, so over and over, they need new tritium or the weapons won't work.  Everywhere the weapons are, there is excessive tritium.  The Savannah River Site, a 310-square mile complex in South Carolina (and everything downstream from it) is particularly heavily polluted.  The Watts Bar nuclear power plant is currently being used to generate excess tritium to replace the tritium that escapes and/or decays from America's nuclear weapons.  Sequoyah is the backup if the Watts Bar reactor cannot be used for any reason.  One could assume that these reactors are therefore primary targets of both terrorist and state-sponsored war plans against the United States, although in theory other reactors could be used to create additional tritium, as well, and all reactors are well-known and highly vulnerable military targets.

Russell "Ace" Hoffman
Concerned Citizen
Carlsbad, CA

(5) Basic facts about tritium:

Collected by  "Ace" Hoffman

Note:  These are taken from a variety of sources, so some conflicting values are inevitable.

Tritium decays by simultaneous beta and anti-neutrino emission.  (The anti-neutrino has no effect on biological systems.)  The beta particle is expelled from the nucleus at about 0.45 X 10^10 cm per second, for a 6 KeV (Kilo-electron volts) particle.  At 20 KeV, a beta particle's speed is about 0.8 X 10^10 cm per second.  Tritium's average beta decay energy is 5.685 KeV.  Tritium's beta decay particle's maximum decay energy is 18.6 KeV.

The radioactive half-life of tritium is 12.35 years, thus, about 5.6% of whatever is left from the previous year decays away each year. (The half-life has also been seen as 12 years, 12.26 years, 12.32 years, 12.33 years, 12.43 years, 12.9 years, etc..)

1 Becquerel (1 Bq) is one radioactive decay (or "nuclear transformation") per second.  There are 86,400 seconds in a day.  There are 31,536,000 seconds in 365 days.  There are 389,784,960 seconds in 12.36 years, assuming all years are 365 days each, a dubious assumption, at best.

Tritium's decay particle's average track in water is about 0.006 mm, or 0.0006 cm, or 3/10,000th of an inch (also described as 0.56 micrometers).  In air, its track is about 5 to 6 millimeters (0.25 inches).

One gram of T2 gas has a radioactivity of 3.59 X 10^14 Bq (9.7 X 10^3 Curies).  There are about 359,000,000,000,000 (359 trillion) decays per second in one gram of tritium gas (T2).

"Commercial tritium demand is 400 grams/year (Kalinowski and Colschen 1995, p. 140). In comparison, the current U.S. arsenal of approximately 10,000 warheads requires approximately 2.2 kilograms/year (at four grams of tritium/warhead) to offset decay." (Source: IEER)

The specific activity of 3H (Tritium) is 28.8 Ci/milliatom, or 9650 Curies per gram, or 357 Terra-Becquerels per gram, or it might also be expressed as "9.7E3" (9,700) Curies per gram, or as 28.7 Ci/mmol (Curies per millimole).  Pure tritium gas (T2) has a specific activity just over 57,000 Curies/mol.

One Curie of tritium weighs about 0.0001036 grams.

One Curie of tritium contains approximately 20,811,069,238,989,819,449 atoms = about 2.08 X 10^19 atoms.

One atom of tritium weighs about 4.979 X 10^-24 grams (0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 004 979 grams).

A Tritium Unit (TU) is 1 atom of tritium per 10^18 atoms of hydrogen, or 0.118 Bq HTO per L (water), or 3.2 pCi HTO per L (water), or 7.1 disintegrations per minute per liter.

Tritium glows beautifully.  The amount of tritium found in a typical illuminated rifle sight is between about 0.012 Curies and 0.200 Curies.  Illuminated handgun sights often use even more tritium.  Tritium is also used in some watch dials, and in exit signs in theaters and office buildings.  Airport runway lights can use from 30 to 165 Curies of tritium per light, which could add up to as much as 100,000 Curies per runway.  Yes, these are undoubtedly serious health risks when these things break or are discarded, and even on a daily basis, due to leakage.  And yes, the tritium usually comes from nuclear power plants.

Whether in the form of gaseous hydrogen or as water vapor, 1.85 x 10^12 Bq (50 Ci) of tritium occupies a volume of about 1/6 of a cup.   (Source: LBL)

For radiological purposes, the "Quality Factor" (aka "Relative Biological Effectiveness" or "RBE") for tritium has generally been set at about 1.8.

First recognized in the 1930s, tritium was believed to be stable (by such people as Ernest J. Rutherford (see note, below)) until about 1936 - 1939 when it became clear that it was radioactive.

One recent estimate (Hechanova) suggested that 100 million Curies of tritium "blast residue" exists at the Nevada Test Site, an area somewhat larger than Rhode Island.

Most of the tritium from nuclear reactors (about 98%) is released in the oxidized form of tritiated water (that is, mainly in the form of HTO (HTO is just H2O (aka "water") with one of its H atoms replaced by a tritium atom instead), along with some DTO (Deuterium-Tritium-Oxygen) and even a little T2O).  The rest is released in the "elemental" form (mostly HT, along with a little DT and T2).  The oxidized form of tritium is approximately 25,000 times more dangerous than the elemental form, according to the International Committee on Radiation Protection (ICRP Publ. 30, part 1, pages 65-68, 1978).

Tritium releases could be significantly and relatively inexpensively reduced by oxidizing the tritium at the source, and then capturing the resulting water on a surfaces cooled with liquid nitrogen.

According to one blog: "One gram of Ra-226 has one Curie, and a half-life is 1600 years.  One gram of tritium (3H) has 12 years half-life will have 1600/12 * 226/3 = 10,000 Curie. Now, since there are maximum 450 grams of 3H in the [ITER fusion reactor] at any time, if it completely blows up you get around 4.5 millions Curie in the atmosphere, which is much less than from a fission-based reactor. It's still a significant number, though."

According to Gordon Wozniak, senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (at least as of 2000) and vice chair of the American Chemical Society's Nuclear Chemistry and Technology Division (ditto), the average person has about 40 billion atoms of tritium in their body at any one time.  Dr. Wozniak is not worried about that amount.  Interestingly, 1.7 Bq/Kg (the figure Okada & Momoshima (the established authorities) give for the average amount of tritium in the human body) corresponds to a somewhat higher total amount -- 1.7 times 80 kilograms, for example, equals about 135 breakdowns per second, compared to the 71 per second which would come from Wozniak's 40 billion tritium atoms, and would thus indicate about twice as many tritium atoms in the human body.  These are global averages.  Local values may be lower, or they may be thousands of times higher.  The EPA limit for tritium in drinking water is about 416 times higher than Wozniak's figure for tritium in the human body.

(Note: 71 disintegrations per second would correspond to about 12 billion chemical bonds destroyed per day in your body from the beta particle's ejection only.  This ignores the damage from the HO free radical and from the initially "hot" 3He atom. -- Ace)

Essentially every scientific and medical procedure for which a replacement for tritium has been found now uses the replacement.  "A lot of researchers have died because of tritium" is how one tritium expert put it to this author.

To give you some idea of the relative quantities and value of tritium versus plutonium and uranium, as part of the 1958 United States - United Kingdom Mutual Defense Agreement, there have been three barter agreements, apparently based on what resources the two countries had, and wanted, at various times. The United States received plutonium totaling 5,366 kilograms from the United Kingdom under the Barter A, B, and C Agreements during the period 1960 - 1979. The United States gave the United Kingdom 6.7 kilograms of tritium and 7,500 kilograms of highly enriched uranium for the plutonium. (Source: Federation of American Scientists / declassified U.S. military documents.)

(Note: To quote biographer John Campbell, Rutherford: "is to the atom what Darwin is to evolution, Newton to mechanics, Faraday to electricity and Einstein to relativity.")

(6) Medical effects of tritium:

LD-50 values  ["lethal-dose 50 percent values"]  for foetal mortality in rats after single HTO [tritiated water] treatments at various doses were:

0.1 microcuries per gram (corresponding to an estimated dose to the foetus of 100 rad) at 4 days p.c. [after conception];
10 microcuries per gram (400 rad) at 9 days p.c. [after conception]; and
100 microcuries per gram (1000 rad) at 17 days p.c. [after conception] .

Several statistically significant effects were found at various HTO levels, in no apparent relationship with dose. These included microcephaly [shrunken heads caused by reduction of brain size], sterility, stunting, reduction of the litter size and increase in the resorption frequency.  Stunting appeared at 20 microcuries per milliliter and its degree increased at higher concentrations in direct relation to dose. Organ weight decreased in proportion to dose.

Source for the above information is, which obtained it from: Sources and Effects of Ionizing Radiation, 1977 UNSCEAR Report to the U.N. General Assembly.


According to the Bruce Center, in 1994, an (Ontario, Canada) appointed “Advisory Committee on Environmental Standards” recommended in a report titled “A Standard for Tritium:  A Recommendation to the Minister of the Environment and Energy” that the maximum permissible concentration of tritium in drinking water be immediately reduced 70-fold to 100 Bq/L, grading to 20 Bq/L over 5 years.  Their recommendations were rejected by the Ontario government.  (Note: 7,000 Bq/L is Canada's current limit on tritium in drinking water, about 10 times the U.S. (EPA) limit.  This is presumably because the Canadian "CANDU" reactors produce about 30 times more tritium -- and release about 20 times more tritium -- than a typical U.S. "light water" reactor, and they could not operate with the more restrictive U.S. guidelines.  -- Ace)

(7) Sources of tritium:


Total global inventory


Natural Sources:

Major portion:
Cosmic ray reactions in the upper atmosphere.

Minor portion:
Earth's Crust (neutron capture reactions by 6Li in rocks).

Total Natural Sources Steady State Global Inventory:
1.3 X 10^18 Bq (corresponds to an annual production of 0.062 X 10^18 Bq/year).

Prior to 1950 when atmospheric nuclear weapons testing in the U.S. began (Note: Other than Trinity -- Ace) the HTO in "natural waters" in the U.S. ranged from 0.14 to 7.9 Bq/L for Chicago rain water, 0.16 to 0.21 Bq/L for Lake Michigan water, and 0.30 to 0.77 Bq/L for the Mississippi.


Anthropogenic sources:

Atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, 1950s to 1960s:
185 to 240 X 10^18 Bq of tritium globally deposited.

By the 1990s the "legacy" was believed to have dropped down to about:
52 X 10^18 Bq globally.

(Note: So-called underground tests often "vented" (about one in every eight blasts), which could have resulted in significant additional atmospheric releases of tritium. -- Ace)

"Normal" releases from nuclear facilities:
0.02 X 10^18 Bq/year
"Off-normal" releases:
0.001 X 10^18 Bq/year

The above two numbers ("normal" and "off-normal") resulted in a "steady-state build-up" of 0.4 X 10^18 Bq by 1993.

Luminous watches, dials, exit signs, etc.:
0.4 X 10^18 Bq/year with a resultant steady-state build-up of 7.4 X 10^18 Bq globally.
(It was noted in the NTLF document that the luminous dial source is expected to decrease with time.)


Combined totals:

Current (as of December, 2004):

"Global inventory of tritium is about 53 X 10^18 Bq, which is about 50 times greater than tritium levels due to natural sources alone.  However, much of this tritium is deposited in the deep ocean where it is unavailable to the circulating waters of the Earth.  Okada and Momoshima [1993] estimate that current levels of tritium in surface, ground and rain water are in the range 0.1 to 8 Bq/L.  Based on these concentrations they estimate that current tritium levels in humans are 1.7 Bq/kg and result in an annual dose of 0.05 microGray to gamma-equivalent doses in microSieverts ... The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation reports a global average dose of 0.01 microGray per year for the human population [UNSCEAR, 1993] ...  The 2400 microSv total background dose [for all sources of radioactivity] per year corresponds to a population risk of 100 fatal cancers per million people per year and an individual risk of 7 in a thousand per lifetime.  0.03 microGray tritium background dose [an average of several estimates which are, in turn, averages of several estimates -- Ace ] corresponds to a population risk of 0.003 fatal cancers per million people per year and an individual risk on the order of 2 in ten million per lifetime."


Source for the above information: LBL Environmental Health-Risk Assessment for Tritium Releases at the NTLF: Chapter 4 (most data quoted was originally from Okada and Momoshima, 1993)


According to an Idaho State University fact sheet, the worldwide production of tritium from natural sources is 4 x 10^6 Curies per year with a steady state inventory of about 70 x 10^6 Curies.

According to Eisenbud 1987, NCRP 1988, and Benedict et all 1981 (as seen at IEER's web site) the "Natural Radionuclide Concentration in Sea Water" for tritium is 2.7 picoCuries per liter.  In "continental surface water", the "natural" concentration varies from 5.4 to 24.3 picoCuries per liter (sources included UNSCEAR 1993 & 1982, NCRP 1988 & 1984, and Eisenbud 1987).  IEER's web site also states that during the "peak fallout period" from weapons testing, the tritium concentration reached "several thousand" picoCuries per liter, but that this had "mostly decayed away by the 1990s."

According to an LBL document, the estimated average concentration of tritium in the earth's waters is 0.00000027 Ci per cubic meter (or 10 Bq per liter).

One LANL document this author dug up suggests that if you live within 50 miles of a Pressurized Water Reactor you should add "0.009 mrem" when calculating your annual cumulative radiation dose.

In 1997, it was learned that Ontario Hydro (Canada) had failed to report tritium contamination of ground water at the Pickering nuclear generating station for the previous twenty years. In 1979 the company found 2,150,000 becquerels per litre (Bq/L) of tritium in ground water, and in 1994 they found 700,000 Bq/L.  (Source: CCNR)

(8) Additional information about tritium (courtesy Ms Blockey-O'Brien):

(Note: This section contains information transcribed during telephone conversations with Ms Blockey-O'Brien, and includes transcripts of live testimony, so the exactness in this section cannot be as high as in other sections of this tritium report, where the numbers have been transcribed directly from original sources.  Nevertheless this additional information is very useful. -- Ace.)

From: Radiation (Medical) in the Pathogenesis of Cancer and Ischemic Heart Disease by John W. Gofman, 1999, page 46 to page 47:

"In 1995, Tore Straume's analysis of evidence indicated that x-rays may be four times as harmful as Hiroshima - Nagasaki gamma rays, at equal rad-doses (Straume, 1995).  Dr. Straume, who was then at the Livermore National Laboratory, used experimental evidence produced at the Harwell Lab of Britain's National Radiological Protection Board:  Prosser 1983, + Lloyd 1986, + Purrott 1977.  The evidence consists of dose responses for dicentric chromosomes induced by ionizing radiation in human lymphocytes (in vitro), evaluated at the first post-irradiation cell-division (Straume, 1995, figure 2).  Decentric chromosomes (having two centromeres) result from misrepaired double-strand chromosome breakage in two separate chromosomes.  The frequency of post-irradiation decentrics has been one standard measure of radiation mutagenisis for decades.  Straume's analysis showed the following results, relative to the atom-bomb gamma rays and at equal rad dose (Straume 1995, page 955):

Cobalt 60 gamma rays are about two-fold more injurious than a-bomb gamma rays

250 Kvp x-rays (called orthovoltage x-rays and having an average energy of 83 KeV) are about four-fold more injurious than a-bomb gamma rays.

Tritium beta rays (average energy of 5.7KeV) are about five-fold more injurious than a-bomb gamma rays.


Quite explicitly, Straume warns that health consequences from x-rays and tritium (radioactive hydrogen) may be larger by a factor of four to five than the harm from an equal dose of Hiroshima-Nagasaki gamma rays (Straume, 1995, Page 956).


Karl Z. Morgan (30 years at Oak Ridge; founding father of the science of health physics, friend of Ms Blockey-O'Brien, and interviewed several times by this author), from the third set of comments relative to treatment and disposal of two million one hundred thousand gallons of contaminated water at TMI-2, September 30th, 1988.

(Was attachment seven to his comments to the Department of Energy's final Environmental impact Statement hearings on the continued operation of KL&P reactors, Savannah River Site, Aiken, South Carolina, Volume two, December 1990 U.S. DOE)

"...The need for a biological effectiveness factor greater than one for Low Energy Beta Radiation has not been recognized.  Toward the end of their tracks, electrons or beta particles have a very high specific ionization or stopping power, dE/dx, and thus approach alpha and fast neutron particle values of RBE.  The ICRP now [1988] sets the RBE of alpha and fast neutrons at 20.  Many studies indicate the RBE for Low Energy Beta Radiation such as that from H-3 and C-14 is greater than one and may be as high as five.  In other words, this factor alone would indicate an underestimate of the population dose and the concomitant risks of radiation induced malignancies and genetic defects by a factor as much as five..... It should be appreciated that since both H-3 and C-14 deposit in the gonads and in the DNA and RNA, they are a genetic risk to children yet to be born a thousand years from now.  Because of their reactions, 3HB+3He and 14CB+14N, one of the 46 chromosomes in a germ cell of a homo sapien can end up suddenly with a hydrogen atom replaced by a helium atom of gas or a carbon atom may be replaced by a nitrogen atom...."


Comments on the May 1990 Draft Environmental Impact Statement Operation of the K, L & P reactors at Savannah River Plant, Dr. Karl Z. Morgan, Atlanta GA, May 24, 1990:

"Tritium H-3 has always been sort of an outsider.  For example, it often shows an isotope effect because (H-3/H-1) = 3 whereas it is small for all other elements, e.g. (SR-90 / (SR-89) = 1.01, (CS-137) / (CS-134) = 1.02 etc..  It is the only radionuclide for which we assume as much is taken into the body via skin penetration as by inhalation.  It is the most invasive of all radionuclides and distributes itself rather uniformly to all organs and all body tissues on a microCurie per gram basis.  It presents a somatic, genetic and teratogenic risk.  It cannot be separated from liquid waste by evaporation, a process used to concentrate most radionuclides.  One of the major forms of damage from H-3 is that when it is incorporated into the nucleus of a body cell and emits its beta particle.  It becomes a helium atom, i.e., 3H-  > B + 3He + V.  This genetic chain now [loses] information by the loss of a hydrogen atom that is converted into helium gas........ the ICRP internal dose committee of which I was chairman made an extensive study of the scientific literature on the damage caused by H-3 and we found studies indicating an RBE from 1 to 5.  Unfortunately there was pressure to do away with our RBE of 1.7.  One ICRP member even went so far as to lament the difficulties they were having in keeping down to the H-3 MPC [Maximum Permissible Concentration] in their weapons plant and our lowering the RBE to one would be a great help.  And so the RBE of H-3 is now set at one and this is what is being used in this SRP [Savannah River Plant] EIS.  Thus the way of reducing an increasing risk in weapons production plant has been to get ICRP and NRCP to relax radiation protection standards, raise the MPC values, and have them adopted by DOE and NRC."

Comment by Ms Blockey-O'Brien:  "Under the Clean Water Act as implemented by the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA refined the definition of the word 'pollutant' to exclude radioactive material regulated under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.  This means that regulations in the Clean Water Act don't apply to 'source, byproduct or special nuclear materials as defined by the Atomic Energy Act' and therefore any attempts by states, groups, or anyone, including the EPA, to try and change the law on radioactive contamination just gets slapped right back down because of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which should be taken up by Congress because it has long needed changing.  The laws governing atomic energy are, in effect, a separate branch of government."

(9) Sources of ionizing radiation:

Source: Annual Dose (in milliSieverts)  (Note: 1 milliSievert =  0.1 rem, annual effective does equivalent)

Natural Sources:
Cosmic, terrestrial, internal:  0.94
Radon: 2.00 (mainly to lung)

X-ray diagnosis: 0.39
Nuclear medicine: 0.14

Consumer Products: 0.10

Occupational: <0.01
Nuclear Fuel Cycle: <0.01
Fallout: <0.01
Miscellaneous environmental sources: <0.01

Total (excluding radon): 1.6

Source: John D. Boice, Jr. & Peter D. Inskip; Leukemia, Sixth Edition (Henderson ES, Lister TA, Greaves MR, eds). Philadelphia, W.B. Saunders, 1996: page 196


According to Bundesamt für Seeschifffahrt und Hydrographie, "The mean effective lifetime dose (of radiation) received by a 70-year-old person is up to 700 mSv."

(10) URL for this author's previous essay on tritium:

Please see this author's previous essay on tritium, available online here:

(11) Glossary of acronyms and abbreviations used in this document:

3H      Tritium.
3He     Light Helium.
6Li     A stable isotope of Lithium.

ABCC    Atomic Bomb Casualty Committee.
AEC     Atomic Energy Commission.  Forerunner of the DOE and the NRC, equally corrupt as either.
AMU     Atomic Mass Units.

BEIR VII Committee      Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation report #7 Committee.
BWR     Boiling Water Reactor.
Bq      Becquerel.  (One Becquerel is exactly one radioactive decay per second.)

CCNR    Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.
Curie   An amount of radioactivity defined as 3.7 * 10^10 decays per second.

DNA     Deoxyribonucleic acid.  A self-duplicating polymer uniquely defining you which is found in the nucleus of nearly every cell in your body (red blood cells and a few others have no DNA), and which contains the genetic code of life.
DOE     Department of Energy.  AKA "Death of the Earth Squad" because they are responsible for poisoning the planet but not responsible for protecting it.

EPA     Environmental Protection Agency.  A toothless federal agency which permits the DOE and NRC to do whatever they want.

Gy      Gray.  An amount of absorbed (by a living organism) ionizing radiation equivalent to one joule of energy per kilogram of body mass.

H       Hydrogen.
H3      Tritium.
He      Helium.
HO      Hydrogen-Oxygen molecule.
HTO     Hydrogen-Tritium-Oxygen molecule.  (Water (H2O), but with a tritium atom for one of its hydrogen atoms.)

KeV     Kilo-electron Volts (pronounced kay-ee-vee).

NRC     Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (The federal organization which permits nuclear waste to be created and dispersed but has virtually no responsibility for human health consequences.)

ICRP    International Committee on Radiological Protection.
IEER    Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.

LBL     Lawrence Berkeley Labs (aka LBNL).
LBNL    Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories (aka LBL).
LLNL    Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, Livermore, California.

MPC     Maximum Permissible Concentration.

NCRP    National Committee on Radiological Protection and Measurements.
NTLF    National Tritium Labeling Facility, a division of LBNL.

pCi     picoCurie, a trillionth of a Curie.
PWR     Pressurized Water Reactor.

RBE     Relative Biological Effectiveness.
REM     Roentgen Equivalent Man.

Sv      Sievert.  One Sv is the energy equivalent to one rad, or one gray (Gy), of x-rays.
SRP     Savannah River Project (now known as the SRS).
SRS     Savannah River Site.

T       Tritium.
T2      Tritium Gas.
TMI     Three Mile Island.

UNSCEAR United Nations Scientific Committee On The Effects Of Atomic Radiation.

(12) Contact information for the author of this document; URL for this document: