New Brunswick Power’s Point Lepreau nuclear reactor in the Bay of Fundy emits much higher levels of radioactive tritium than other nuclear reactors in Canada. Ingesting and breathing tritium increases the risk of cancer in humans and other animals.
Tritium is the radioactive isotope of hydrogen and international agencies recognize it as an exceptionally dangerous radioactive substance. One of its properties is to bind with carbohydrates, proteins and lipids in cells to form organically bound tritium (OBT) which stays inside the body for years.
These alarming findings will be tabled May 10 by the Passamaquoddy Recognition Group in Saint John during Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) hearings into NB Power’s application for an unprecedented 25-year extension to its operating license. of its Lepreau reactor. The CNSC is the regulator of all nuclear activities in Canada.
Although industry scientists in Canada claim that tritium has low toxicity and does not bioaccumulate, official reports show that tritium is two to three times more radiotoxic than external gamma radiation. And many studies indicate that OBT levels increase the more people are exposed to tritiated water.
There is considerable evidence – from numerous epidemiological studies around the world – that children who live near nuclear power plants emitting large amounts of tritium are more likely to contract leukemia than those who live farther away. References to all of these studies are included in the appendix to the CNSC brief submitted by the Passamaquoddy Recognition Group.
The problem is that Canadian CANDU heavy water reactors emit much more tritium than American or European reactors, so the health effects are very likely to be greater here. However, the industry and the CNSC avoid any study that could cause them problems.
Mainly because of pressure from Canada’s powerful nuclear lobby, safety levels for tritium here are very lax compared to other countries. For example, acceptable levels of tritium in drinking water in Canada are 70 times those in the EU and about 400 times higher than in some US states.
In my expert report for the Passamaquoddy Recognition Group, I found that the annual releases of tritium from the Point Lepreau reactor are very large compared to all other nuclear reactors in Canada and even in the world.
In 2020, its atmospheric emissions of tritium were 290 terabecquerels, or 290,000,000,000,000 becquerels, which is a huge amount of radioactivity. Worryingly, these releases have increased in recent years.
Of course, the older a reactor, the higher the tritium levels in its moderator and cooling circuits. In addition, various operation and maintenance activities increase tritium releases. Without a means to dispose of tritium, its inventory and releases will continue to increase each year.
These concerns are exacerbated by NB Power’s proposed new 25-year license from 2022 to 2047. The reactor began operations 40 years ago in 1982 (with retubing between 2008 and 2012). The CNSC has recommended that the NB Power nuclear facility be re-licensed to operate for another 20 years until 2042, see CNSC response.
However, this would mean that Lepreau would have operated for 60 years, which is unacceptable as it was originally designed with a 30 year lifespan. This is arguably a dangerous proposition and goes against the precautionary principle, which states that “full evidence of a potential risk is not required before action is taken to mitigate the effects of potential risk”.
How does tritium get into people?
When tritium is emitted from Point Lepreau, it travels through multiple environmental pathways to humans, including through the air. It circulates in the environment, as tritium atoms rapidly exchange with stable hydrogen atoms in the biosphere and hydrosphere.
This means that all open water surfaces, rivers, streams and all biota, local crops and foods in open-air markets, animals and humans will be contaminated with tritiated moisture up to levels ambient – i.e. down to atmospheric concentrations of tritium emissions.
According to New Brunswick Power’s environmental assessments, local residents will be exposed to radiation from these tritium emissions, tritium in food and water, inspired tritium, and tritium absorbed through the skin.
For example, NB Power already admits that people are exposed to radiation from tritiated water vapor in the air, drinking water from local wells, diving for sea urchins, harvesting clams and dulse and the consumption of local seafood. But local people will also get doses by eating wild foods such as mushrooms, berries and other fruits, gardening vegetables, honey hives and harvesting seaweed as fertilizer.
These are all important issues for indigenous peoples who take pride in living near their lands and seas. The continued radioactive poisoning of their lands and seas is deeply offensive to them.
These intakes increase their risk of cancer and other radiation diseases, but NB Power does not measure tritium levels in people near its Lepreau reactor, nor does it conduct epidemiological studies of levels of bad health of neighboring populations.
Nevertheless, epidemiological studies conducted at other Canadian facilities that emit tritium all indicate an increase in cancers and birth defects. Additionally, evidence from cell and animal studies and radiobiology theory indicates that radiogenic effects occur as a result of tritium exposures.
New studies show increased risks
Recent, large and statistically powerful epidemiological studies of nuclear workers in the UK, US and France have increased our perception of the risks of low level radiation, including tritium. The new studies show a 47% increase in solid cancers and a 580% increase in leukaemias. This evidence applies directly to Point Lepreau’s tritium radiation exposures.
These high and increasing tritium emissions, high levels of radioactive contamination, and increased estimates of cancer risk mean that tritium poses worrisome health risks to workers and people near Lepreau and in the direction of prevailing winds, including including in Saint John.
NB Power has long ignored the dangers of tritium at Lepreau.
The conclusion of my report for the Passamaquoddy Recognition Group is that Point Lepreau should not be granted a license extension, let alone a 20-year one. As experience around the world shows, much safer, healthier and cheaper alternatives exist for electricity generation, such as wind turbines, solar panels and tidal systems.
Dr Ian Fairlie is an independent UK-based citizen scientist who specialized in radioactivity in the environment with degrees in chemistry and radiobiology. His doctoral studies at Imperial College, UK and Princeton University, USA focused on nuclear waste technologies. One of his areas of expertise is the dosimetric impacts of nuclear reactor emissions, in particular tritium.