|10 Facts Every San Clemente Resident Should Know About Tritium (T):
1) T, aka H3, is normally bound with water (ie, a normal H and an O to make HTO, aka H2O, aka water). Tritium has a half-life of about 12.3 years.
2) Water evaporates, leaks, damages electronics and electrical equipment, flows to the sea, floods your basement, corrodes pipes, carries even more corrosive substances... Water can be nasty stuff when it's where you don't want it (tsunamis, floods, hurricanes, waterboards, inside your cell phone...).
3) No living organism, and no normal table-top chemistry process can distinguish tritium or any other radioactive substance from a stable isotope of the same substance until the moment of radioactive decay occurs. By then, of course, it's too late. (You need rows of thousands of centrifuges or other special equipment to separate various isotopes of elements. Just ask Iran, they do it all the time...)
4) Hydrogen is a basic building block of all life-forms. Proteins are molecules often containing thousands of hydrogen atoms in a precise configuration with other atoms. Damage one atom, break the special shape of the molecule in any way (as all ionizing radiation can do), and a signal protein could become a poison instead -- or at least, would fail to transmit its signal. (Life is made of signal proteins more than just about anything else.)
5) If they leak tritium, which is almost always bound up as HTO, chances are pretty good it will evaporate, and never make it into the ground. We will breath it as water vapor. It will be in doses too low to measure accurately, thanks to all the tritium everyone is already dumping into our environment. (There is very little 'natural' tritium on earth at any one time.)
6) When tritium decays, it releases a beta particle. The way beta particles harm biological systems is by the fact that they are (negatively) charged and very high speed. Damage is done on a time and distance basis: The longer and/or closer the beta particle is to another charged subatomic particle (electron) or particles (atoms, molecules) the more effect the beta particle can have on any given thing, and thus, the more damage it can cause. Therefore, virtually all the damage is done at the END of the beta particle's track. THEREFORE when the NRC or SCE describes tritium's beta particle as a "soft" or "low energy" beta particle, it is a misrepresentation, because they want you to believe that's a GOOD thing, and protects you. Actually, since they measure tritium by total energy dumped per unit of body mass, the fact that it is a relatively low energy beta release means there are more releases per total energy amount -- and thus there is MORE, not LESS, damage for a given amount of energy released! (This phenomenon is known as Bragg's Hump.)
7) Since T is usually bound with H and O as HTO (masquerading as H2O), when it decays from that state, it leaves an OH free radical molecule -- hydrogen peroxide, which is extremely damaging to cell structures in its own right! Your body does make OH but only in very controlled ways. THIS OH molecule is almost invariably in a bad place, and causes a lot of damage for a long time (eat your anti-oxidants, folks!)
8) Normal cell death is a biologically controlled function. Cells normally live until signalled by the body's control mechanisms to commit "cell suicide" (apoptosis) and then they do so, and are absorbed by a nearby cell before completely collapsing as a structural unit. It's very controlled and happens about a million times a minute inside your body, and is part of the process of life. But random cell death causes inflammation, which is NOT a good thing! And random damage to the DNA can cause cancer, which is even worse!
9) The biological hazard rating for tritium has been raised in the past, but surely is still not high enough (it's more dangerous than they admit). Tritium is used in fewer and fewer medical procedures because it is so difficult to handle safely, and so dangerous in such minute quantities.
10) A typical reactor is only allowed to release about a thirtieth of a teaspoon of tritium in a whole year! A bad year is maybe a whole teaspoon of tritium. That's how deadly this stuff is! And if that teaspoon of tritium evaporates, do you think it gets measured accurately, and properly reported? What it does get is a special dispensation from the NRC to release the extra tritium that year.
Click here to find out more about tritium releases from San Onofre