LANL Reports Tritium Discharges in Water

Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) announced last week that there are elevated levels of tritium in water discharged from an outfall at Technical Area-21 (or TA-21). The tritium was discovered during routine testing at TA-21, which includes the Tritium System Test Assembly. LANL found 68,600 picoCuries per liter in releases from a cooling tower into an ephemeral stream in DP Canyon, a tributary to Los Alamos Canyon, which may flow into the Rio Grande.

Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that emits low-energy beta radioactivity and poses little threat when inhaled in elemental form. It is commercially used in self-illuminating exit signs found in some buildings. Tritium is also used to increase the yield of fission and thermonuclear weapons. LANL claims that the tritium found at TA-21 poses no threat to the public or the environment. However, because tritium has the same chemical properties as hydrogen, it can combine with oxygen to form tritiated water. Plants, animals and the human body cannot distinguish between regular water and tritiated water.

Although most tritiated water is released as waste, the body can absorb some and the tritium becomes organically bound to molecules within the body, which can pose a risk of cancer or genetic defects. The effects of tritiated water on human beings have not yet been thoroughly studied. However, tritium has been shown to cause reproductive and developmental problems and genetic abnormalities in laboratory animals. The Environmental Protection Agency (or EPA) has set a cleanup standard for tritium contaminated sites of a 1 in 10,000 to a 1 in 1,000,000 chance of developing cancer for a person exposed to such sites. The Safe Drinking Water Standard for tritium is 20,000 picoCuries per liter.

Tritium has been found at several Department of Energy (or DOE) sites around the nation. Last year low levels of tritiated water were found in the ground water near TA-54, LANL's Area G dump. LANL officials said that effluent discharges from TA-21 were stopped following the discovery. The releases come as no surprise to some state environmental officials, considering that the tritium test facility is more than 20 years old, and is, according to John Parker of the New Mexico Environment Department's DOE Oversight Bureau, "basically an old rust bucket." The TA-21 Tritium System Test Assembly is scheduled to be deactivated by the end of the year.

Coincidentally, Dr. Arjun Makhijani, President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, spoke of the importance of further study of the health effects of tritium at a talk in Santa Fe just days after LANL released its findings. Dr. Makhijani, who is an internationally recognized expert on energy and nuclear issues, said, "Last time [the nuclear weapons establishment] poisoned our milk [with Iodine-131], this time they are putting major water resources at risk of radioactive contamination. Tritium standards for drinking water are set for the so-called standard man [which is] a 154-pound male. But tritiated water crosses the placenta and can affect the developing fetus. Also, the interactions between tritium and toxic endocrine disrupting chemicals are essentially unknown. I think some of the risks of tritiated water and organically bound tritium are underestimated in present regulations."

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