Tag Archives: nuclear power

Japanese Release of Tritium

What do we know for sure about the Japanese nuclear disaster? Not much. This informative article reprinted on Counterpunch.com this morning from the original in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists by Barbara Rose  Johnston discusses how industry and government have long worked together to hide the dangers of the nuclear era. It is an excellent piece well worth reading. Here is a brief excerpt dealing with tritium:

This regulation of information has been the case since the nuclear age began, and understanding this helps to illuminate why there is no clear consensus on what Japan’s nuclear disaster means in terms of local and global human health.

Nuclear secrecy in context. In the initial hours after the earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese government and Tokyo Electrical Power Company issued statements reporting minor damage at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. In the days that followed, government and industry officials reported the “venting of hydrogen gas”, but that there was “no threat to health.” This reassurance of health safety was echoed when hydrogen gas explosions occurred at the power plant.

In fact, the hydrogen released is tritium water vapor, a low-level emitter that can be absorbed in a human body through simply breathing, or by drinking contaminated water. Tritium decays by beta emission and has a radioactive half-life of about 12.3 years. As it undergoes radioactive decay, this isotope emits a very low-energy beta particle and transforms to stable, nonradioactive helium. Once tritium enters the body, it disperses quickly, is uniformly distributed, and is excreted through urine within a month or so after ingestion. It produces a low-level exposure and may result in toxic effects to the kidney. As with all ionizing radiation, exposure to tritium increases the risk of developing cancer.

So, then, why no mention of tritium in the government or industry statements? Relatively speaking, the health effects of a low-level emitter like tritium are minor when compared to the other radiogenic and toxic hazards in this nuclear catastrophe. Such omission is a standard industry practice, designed to reassure the public that the normal operating procedures of a nuclear power plant represent no significant threat to human health.

The assertion that low-level exposure to radiation represents no human threat is an artifact of Cold War-era science that was shaped to meet government and industry needs.

During the Cold War, scientific findings on health effects to nuclear fallout that contradicted the official narrative were typically censored. Scientists were not only punished for their work, they were also blacklisted — one example of this was American anthropologist Earle Reynolds whose work for the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission was censored in 1953 by the US government. His research showed that Japanese children who were exposed to fallout were not only smaller than their counterparts, but had less resistance to disease in general and were more susceptible to cancer, especially leukemia. The consequences of this censored history was examined in 1994 by the US Advisory Commission on Human Radiation Experimentation, which concluded that the radiation health literature of the Cold War years was a heavily sanitized and scripted version meant to reassure and pacify public protests while achieving military and economic agendas.

Radiation and the Pacific Jet Stream

Will radiation released from Japan’s damaged nuclear plants affect people living in the United States, in Hawaii or on the West Coast? I asked that question of Dr. Ivan Oelrich, a retired nuclear physicist who worked during the last decade with the Federation of American Scientists, toured Japanese reactor sites last August. In an interview this morning he said that detectable radiation around the world may rise, but not “significantly.” When the North Koreans set off a nuclear device, for example, radiation showed up at the monitoring station at Yellowknife, Canada–the spot where radiation levels from Japan probably will be first detected on the mainland–but the amounts remained small.

U.S. and international nuclear regulatory agencies have assured Americans that they will not be affected by the current levels of radiation released in Japan. People along the West Coast might well be apprehensive about the effects of a catastrophic radiation release, however, due to the existence of powerful air current across the Pacific. The question has brought to light one little-noticed historical example of how the Pacific jet stream carried a Japanese attack on the U.S. during World War II.  That incident is described in Wikipedia:

Between November 1944 and April 1945, the Japanese Navy launched over 9,000 fire balloons toward North America. Carried by the recently-discovered Pacific jet stream, they were to sail over the Pacific Ocean and land in North America, where the Japanese hoped they would start forest fires and cause other damage. About three hundred were reported as reaching North America, but little damage was caused. Six people (five children and a woman) became the only deaths due to enemy action to occur on mainland America during World War II…Recently released reports by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian military indicate that fire balloons reached as far inland as Saskatchewan.