Experts say high release limits for radioactive tritium endanger humans and other species that drink water from the Ottawa River



(Ottawa, Ontario, March 22, 2018) An environmental scientist and a health expert say that dumping of tritium-contaminated water into the Ottawa River from a defunct nuclear reactor in Rolphton, Ontario is a risk to humans and other species, and that the practice is part of a systemic problem with the regulation of the nuclear industry in Canada.


The multinational consortium responsible for the dumping, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, has defended its actions, saying that the concentration of tritium it has dumped into the Ottawa River is 10,000 times below the discharge limit in its federal license.


Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen that is released in very large quantities from Canadian nuclear reactors. A small amount is also produced naturally in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Tritium combines with oxygen to form radioactive water molecules that travel rapidly through the human body right into cell nuclei, where tritium can be incorporated into genetic material. Once there, it acts as a ticking time bomb that will eventually decay, giving off a beta particle that can cause severe damage on the molecular level.


The risks of exposure to tritium have been greatly underestimated by the nuclear industry in Canada, according to Dr. Éric Notebaert, a physician and board member for Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. “Each and every release of tritium increases risks of cancer, birth defects in offspring and genetic mutations in humans who drink the contaminated water or breathe the contaminated air,” Notebaert said, adding: “There is no safe level of exposure to tritium or any other manmade radioactive element.”


According to Dr. Ole Hendrickson, environmental scientist and researcher for the Concerned Citizens of Renfrew County and Area, discharge limits for radioactive substances in Canada do not protect the public from exposure to man-made radioactive materials that are routinely released from nuclear facilities. These discharge limits, known in the industry as “Derived Release Limits” or DRLs, are calculated by the facilities themselves, using voluntary guidelines, and are based on many assumptions about how the emissions will be absorbed by humans. The release limits do not take into account humans being exposed to multiple radioactive pollutants and to cumulative emissions from more than one source of pollution.


“The nuclear industry has been hiding behind DRLs for years. The limits are set very high so that actual releases look low in comparison. It is time that the industry was called out on these absurd limits that allow very high levels of contamination to be characterized as low, confusing the public and decision-makers in the process,” Hendrickson stated.


Hendrickson calculates that the tritium release limit for the Rolphton reactor — upstream from Ottawa —  is so high that, if the facility released the permitted amount, the Ottawa River would be contaminated with tritium at a level 8,000 times higher than the natural background level. It would also be more than twice the Ontario drinking water standard of 7,000 Becquerels/litre — a standard that the Ontario Drinking Water Advisory Council recommended in 2009 should be reduced to 20 Becquerels per litre.


“A one-litre bottle of water from the Ottawa River would contain 17,000 Bq of tritium, meaning that it would be giving off 17,000 radioactive disintegrations from tritium every second, second after second,” said Hendrickson. “This gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘sparkling water.’”


Hendrickson cites other examples that he says illustrate the absurdity of DRLs and their lack of connection to health protection.  “Before it closed in 2013 Shield Source, a tritium light factory in Peterborough, Ontario had a DRL for tritium gas that was over 200 times higher than the total global natural tritium production rate.  Each year, in theory, Shield Source could have emitted more than ten times the world’s natural tritium inventory. Had they done so, tritium levels in rainfall, and in every water body in the world, would have risen several hundred-fold, exceeding those measured at the peak of nuclear weapons testing in 1963.


“Another tritium light factory, SRB Technologies in Pembroke, Ontario during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s released more radioactive tritium annually to the local environment than all of Canada’s nuclear power stations combined, while well within its DRL.”


During a recent review of the Environmental Impact Statement for the proposal to entomb the Rolphton Nuclear Power Demonstration (NPD) reactor in cement and grout, it was revealed that the reactor basement continuously fills with water that seeps in through cracks in the foundation, becoming highly contaminated with radioactive tritium and other toxic substances like PCBs, mercury and lead. The facility manager, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, routinely dumps batches of the contaminated water directly into the Ottawa River, even though it exceeds Ontario and Canadian surface water quality standards by hundreds and thousands of times.


Canada’s nuclear regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, widely perceived to be a “captured agency”, published a discussion paper in 2012 on establishing release limits at nuclear facilities. The discussion paper acknowledged that Canadian DRLs are not meeting international standards and need to be lowered. CNSC has not yet taken any regulatory action on these recommendations.


The Concerned Citizens of RenfrewCounty and Area was formed in 1978 to research and advocate about nuclear waste and other pollution issues in Eastern Ontario and the Ottawa River watershed. The group works closely with other citizen and environmental groups to promote responsible management of radioactive wastes and protection of the environment.

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