Sunday, February 15, 2009

#1 with a bullet: Tritium

February 15th, 2009
Dear Readers,
Wal-Mart has lost 15,800 tritium-based emergency-exit signs.

That's enough tritium to make more than a few dirty bombs. In fact, you can pretty easily make 15,800 dirty bombs with it. Okay, dirty grenades. Dirty little land mines. Poison gas bombs.

Most of these missing signs are probably being properly used, albeit in improper places -- as exit signs elsewhere, to comply with various fire safety laws. But some of them are undoubtedly being disposed of improperly, too.

No one knows where they all are. The Star of Toronto published a very informative article today, with lots of good information about tritium generally (shown below). But its author has only written that tritium is "potentially dangerous." Tritium -- radioactive hydrogen -- is very, very dangerous.

Hydrogen, element #1 in the Periodic Table, is the most common element in our bodies, on earth, and in the universe. But tritium has an extra two neutrons in its nucleus, in addition to the single proton all hydrogen has (some hydrogen has one neutron, which is called deuterium and is also stable, like normal hydrogen, which is the lightest, smallest element, and normally has no neutrons in its nucleus).

When tritium decays, on average 12.3 years after it happens to be created, it shoots off a beta particle, which is a high-speed electron. High speed means "a significant fraction of the speed of light." Beta particles are extremely dangerous little bullets, mainly because they have a charge of one negative electron volt.
Initially -- when it first escapes the nucleus of the radioactive hydrogen atom (which becomes a stable isotope of helium, with two protons and one neutron) -- the "beta particle" (the high-speed electron) is actually relatively harmless. It is very light compared to atoms, and very small, and moving so fast that its electrical charge does not have TIME as it passes things, to have much effect on anything it passes.
It is only when a beta particle SLOWS DOWN that it starts to hang around long enough to cause significant trouble. The slower the beta particle is when it passes things, the more TIME it has to knock other electrons off of atoms, thus ionizing them, or to spin the atoms of delicate protein molecules into unknown and useless configurations (perhaps these damaged proteins were "signal molecules" that control millions of other molecules in your body). All beta decay particles are dangerous, but the fact that tritium's beta particle is described by pro-nukers as "low-energy" doesn't make it less dangerous than any other beta decay particle.
Tritium is not merely "potentially dangerous." Tritium is one of the most dangerous substances on earth. It requires about 13,000,000,000 (13 billion) gallons of water to dilute the tritium released from a typical American nuclear power plant every year (about 1,000 Curies) to the current (outrageously too high) EPA standard of 20,000 picoCuries per liter of drinking water. Canadian CANDU reactors release about twenty times more tritium than American reactors, and could not operate under the tighter U.S. standards. If an American nuclear power plant releases even a gram (10,000 Curies) of tritium in a single year, they'd probably need a special permit (they'd get it).

And yet, we are told by pro-nukers only that tritium has "a low-energy beta decay" and that it is a "natural isotope already found on earth." They'll tell us that it is released only in "minute" quantities by nuclear power plants "during their routine operation." But every plant has years with excessive tritium releases -- perhaps 10 times the normal annual amount. No member of the public will be told, and the news media will not be issued a press release. Some of the data might eventually appear in some of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's obscure, but publicly-accessible databases, usually months later, but the actual quantity of tritium released will only be estimated, because, inevitably, gauges don't work, records are lost, calibration wasn't done within the proper time limit, and, of course -- THE NEEDLES PEGGED DURING THE EVENT.
It happens all the time.

A better way to describe tritium than to call it "harmless" (as pro-nukers actually have been quoted in the papers as saying) would be to say this: Tritium is radioactive hydrogen, the most pervasive of all radioactive isotopes created in nuclear fission reactors. Tritium is rarely found in nature, but the world is flooded with it every day by nuclear reactors, especially the CANDU reactors. The nuclear industry knows there is NO WAY to prevent the release of most of this radioactive hydrogen, so they call its radioactive decay a "low energy beta decay" so the victim thinks it is harmless. It's 'low' only compared to other beta decays created by other fission products of reactors. Its energy can (and will) break thousands of bonds in your body. It's not 'low' energy at all compared to your biological structures (or to steel structures, for that matter), but the industry MUST lie about 'tritium' (radioactive hydrogen) to operate. Otherwise it would have to shut down. So it lies, without hesitation and in most cases, without the pro-nuker even understanding that something with a 'low energy beta decay' is actually MORE dangerous per unit of energy released! They really don't even know that. But ignorance does not excuse criminal behavior.

In the Star article, one spokesperson for Wal-Mart claims they will no longer use tritium-based exit signs, but another spokesperson waters that claim down significantly. Part of the problem is that fire regulations require self-lighted exit signs but don't also state that those signs must NOT be made with tritium. Ignorance about tritium pervades (although the spokesperson from Greenpeace Canada, quoted in the article, is eloquent).
When tritium escapes into the environment, it cannot be smelled or tasted, or seen. Tritium usually binds with oxygen, creating tritiated water -- "HTO" (and, very rarely, T2O). Different isotopes of an element are indistinguishable by biological systems (and very difficult to isolate). Tritium also binds with many other elements. No matter how tritium gets out of the reactor and into your body, it becomes part of the biosphere's inventory of poisons, which kills and debilitates, without compensation for the victims, or punishment for the perpetrators.

All countries which operate nuclear reactors turn a blind eye to the devastation caused by tritium. They have to, to continue releasing this deadly poison which they MUST do to operate. So, tritium's very limited service as a diagnostic tool in hospitals is touted, although in fact, tritium is NOT used if an alternative can be found, precisely because it is so "wicked."

Regulations regarding tritium are lax, enforcement is lax, permissible standards are lax, proper measurements of existing tritium "hot spots" are lax, and in every way, reasonable concern for the protection of life, especially infants, babies, fetuses, zygotes, sperm and egg, etc., is very, VERY lax.
Releasing tritium into the environment IS murder.

Sincerely
Ace Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA

Tritium exit sign (from NRC web site)

My 2007 essay on tritium:
http://www.animatedsoftware.com/environment/tritium/2007/ItsAllAboutTheDNA.htm
My 2006 essay (includes a glossary and some background):
http://animatedsoftware.com/environment/tritium/2006/EPATritiumStandard.htm
My first tritium essay (2004):
http://www.animatedsoftware.com/environm/onofre/2004/TritiumComments%2020041223.htm
My Animated Periodic Table of the Elements:
http://www.animatedsoftware.com/elearning/Periodic%20Table/AnimatedPeriodicTable.swf
Password: NO NUKES!!
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At 08:53 AM 2/15/2009 -0500, "Tim Seitz" sent:
>http://www.thestar.com/business/article/587906
>
>Wal-Mart's glow-in-the-dark mystery
>
>TheStar.com - Business -
>
>Wal-Mart's glow-in-the-dark mystery
>Retail giant can't account for 15,800 of its exit signs that contain a potentially dangerous radioactive gas
>February 15, 2009
>Tyler Hamilton
>BUSINESS REPORTER
>
>It began in late 2007 as a routine audit. Retail giant Wal-Mart noticed that some exit signs at the company's stores and warehouses had gone missing.
>
>As the audit spread across Wal-Mart's U.S. operations, the mystery thickened. Stores from Arkansas to Washington began reporting missing signs. They numbered in the hundreds at first, then the thousands. Last month Wal-Mart disclosed that about 15,800 of its exit signs – a stunning 20 per cent of its total inventory – are lost, missing, or otherwise unaccounted for at 4,500 facilities in the United States and Puerto Rico.
>
>Poor housekeeping, certainly, but what's the big deal?
>
>In a word: radiation.
>
>The signs contain tritium gas, a radioactive form of hydrogen. Tritium glows when it interacts with phosphor particles, a phenomenon that has led to the creation of glow-in-the-dark emergency exit signs.
>
>It's estimated there are more than 2 million tritium-based exit signs in use across North America.
>
>It turns out that Ontario-based companies SRB Technologies (Canada) Inc. of Pembroke and Shield Source Inc. of Peterborough have sold the lion's share of these signs, which use tritium produced as a by-product from the operation of Canadian-made Candu nuclear reactors.
>
>The health effects of tritium exposure continue to be a hot topic of debate. It's not strong enough to penetrate the skin, and in low quantities regulators and industry groups say tritium is safe. But when inhaled or ingested it can cause permanent changes to cells and has been linked to genetic abnormalities, developmental and reproductive problems and other health issues such as cancer.
>
>"The problem is that because it's hydrogen it can actually become part of your body," says Shawn-Patrick Stensil of Greenpeace Canada. "The radiation doesn't emit far, but when it actually becomes part of your cell it's right next to your DNA. So for a pregnant woman, for example, it can be really dangerous."
>
>General exposure from one broken sign might be the equivalent of getting up to three chest X-rays, even though today we no longer give pregnant women X-rays. If tritium is ingested, for example, by a child who breaks a sign with a hockey stick, it's much more potent. If only 5 per cent of the tritium in a large exit sign is ingested, it would be equivalent to 208 years of natural background radiation, according to a report from the Product Stewardship Institute at the University of Massachusetts.
>
>And what about exposure from thousands of signs dumped near a source of drinking water, or packed with explosives in the back of a truck that has been driven into a crowded building?
>
>"I'm sure thousands of them would create a credible dirty bomb," says Norm Rubin, director of nuclear research at Energy Probe in Toronto. "Most experts think the main purpose of a dirty bomb is to cause panic, disruption and expensive cleanup rather than lots of dead bodies. A bunch of tritium, especially if oxidized in an explosion, would probably do that job fine."
>
>Tritium is also a component in nuclear warheads. In 2005, SRB Technologies got permission from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to export 70,000 of its tritium exit signs to Iran. Foreign Affairs Canada blasted the regulator for allowing shipment to a country that's attempting to develop weapons of mass destruction. The shipment went through.
>
>South of the border, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission appears more concerned with tritium contamination of landfills and the threat of leaching into drinking water. The agency regulates the use of tritium devices, requiring the reporting of lost, stolen or broken property and proper cleanup and disposal.
>
>"Throughout the whole process we stayed in very close contact with the NRC and received their guidance," said Wal-Mart spokesperson Daphne Davis Moore. "We no longer use these signs in our stores."
>
>Wal-Mart's poor recordkeeping was a wake-up call for the nuclear agency, which in January sternly reminded users of the signs of their regulatory obligations. At the same time, it assured the public there's nothing to worry about.
>
>Still, the agency was concerned enough to demand that any organization possessing 500 or more tritium exit signs conduct audits and report their findings within 60 days. The list included Home Depot, AMC Theatres and a number of universities and schools.
>
>Wal-Mart Canada says it has a few tritium exit signs in most of its stores. "We've gone back over our records and have not found any reason for concern," said spokesperson Kevin Groh. "We are doing an audit to get an accurate inventory." The difference, in Canada, is they don't have to do it. Users of the signs are not licensed in Canada as long as the product is properly marked as radioactive, according to the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. This makes it difficult to determine exactly how many tritium signs exist in Canada and where they end up.
>
>Stensil of Greenpeace said it's a strange way for a government to treat a radioactive device, but he's not surprised. He said the federal government has always had lax rules when it comes to tritium, partly because Canada, through its Candu nuclear plants, is one of the biggest producers of the substance in the world.
>
>Dorothy Goldin Rosenberg, who teaches environmental health at the University of Toronto, said there's a double standard in Canada when it comes to regulating tritium. Permissible levels in drinking water here are 100 times greater than in Europe and more than 400 times greater than in California.
>
>She was shocked when told about the 15,800 missing tritium signs at Wal-Mart, but even more surprised to learn that use of such signs isn't tracked or monitored in Canada.
>
>"Most people haven't even heard of tritium," she lamented.
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Ace Hoffman
Author, The Code Killers:
An Expose About Nuclear Crimes
High and Low, Large and Small,
Far and Wide
Free download: www.acehoffman.org

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email: ace@acehoffman.org
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