Cheat-Seeking Missles

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Great Tritium Non-Scare

So they found some tritium in water samples under the San Onofre nuclear power plant in the very pretty beach town of San Clemente.


San Clemente officials shut down a water well because "we owe it to our residents" reports a breathless LA Times, which goes on to report:
Tritium, an isotope of hydrogen that can cause not only cancer but also miscarriages and birth defects, is increasingly stoking fears in communities near nuclear plants across the country.
Yeah, stoked by irresponsible reporting.

Let's see ... we have to amble our way through 15 paragraphs until we get to the tritium concentrations, past tales of sea lions and endangered sea turtles caught in San Onofre's intakes and the "fact" that "nearby residents also have grown wary of the plant as a potential terrorist target that stores highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel." Prove it, Bubba. Where's your data?

Oh, and that tritium? Samples of groundwater contained 50,000 to 330,000 picocuries (pCi) per liter. Picocuries, you ask? My friend Neil fills us in:
Millicurie: 0.001 Ci - one thousandth of a Curie
Microcurie: 0.000001 Ci
Nanocurie: 0.000000001 Ci
Picocurie: 0.000000000001 Ci
So 330,000 picocuries ain't a whole lot of curies. Curie-ous, isn't it? Neil goes on:
Just because more energetic ionizing radiation can cause [miscarriages and birth defects], it does not follow that the exceedingly low beta energy from tritium can do the same. Tritium as tritiated water by itself does not come in natural or manmade concentrations high enough to cause the general public to achieve the cancers and birth defects, even if they drank the stuff.
OK, we get it, but it's kind of dry, Neil, even with that "drink the stuff" line. Can you give us something a bit more real-life for those of us who have never been certified by the NRC to handle radioactive materials?

Being of exceptional (and decidedly weird) good humor, Neil provides:
Brazil nuts (Bertholletia excelsa) contain Radium-226 (a radioactive material that is 10,000 times more hazardous) at concentrations up to 7,000 picocuries/kilogram. Put on an equal-hazard scale, the liter of tritiated water would have to contain 70,000,000 picocuries to be as hazardous as the same weight of Brazil nuts.

During the holiday season, I used to keep a sack of Brazil nuts on my gamma spectral analyzer. When people noticed the rapid accumulation of gamma "counts" on the computer screen, they would ask what was in the sample. I would open up the shielded door, pick out some nuts, and eat them. Sometimes people went into conniptions of cognitive dissonance.
Heh. Good stuff. Too bad more people read the LATimes than C-SM.

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