Since about 1990, the international research community has spent more time looking at lower dose rate health effects. Many of these scientists have been surprised to discover effects such as genomic instability, the bystander effect, an increase in Relative Biological Effect (RBE), mini-satellite damage and non-homogeneous distribution of radionuclides.
Nuke Spill at Chalk River Reactor
On January 27, 2009, the leading headline in many newspapers across Canada reported a spill of tritium from the Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) nuclear reactor that produces medical radioisotopes. News reports said that there was no health threat after the aging reactor had released radioactive tritium into the air on December 5, 2008.
Later the public found out that another part of the reactor had sprung a leak of “slightly radioactive water”. 7,000 liters a day were spewing out and this was going on for six weeks. In order to keep the reactor going, the tritium-contaminated leaked water was replaced, ending up in the Ottawa River.
The CNSC said that the water leaking from the weld was at a “very low level of radioactivity” and not a matter of concern. The radioactive spill however, did provoke renewed controversy over the safety of the facility. Later after a brief shutdown, the reactor continued to operate producing medical isotopes.
On March 5, 2009, the city of Ottawa reported that the Ottawa River was chronically contaminated by tritium at about 6 becquerels/litre (Bq/L). A following report said that low levels of tritiated water were detected at the mouth of the Ottawa River that empties into the St. Lawrence River.
The NGO, Tritium Awareness Project, (TAP) reported that an estimated 28 trillion becquerels of tritium had been released from the Chalk River facility into the Ottawa River while an estimated trillion becquerels had been released into air.
On March 25, the International Institute of Concern for Public Health (IICPH) called on the authorities to heed warnings about health risks from spills of tritium into air and water. Some federal politicians also spoke out on the issue. Gordon Edwards, President of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR) wrote a letter to the Ottawa Citizen stating that “It is deeply distressing to see how the polluter (AECL) and the regulator (CNSC) join forces to obscure the facts and to provide unscientific reassurances of safety to the public and to their elected representatives.”1
A controversy had arisen the previous year when Prime Minister Stephen Harper fired the chief nuclear regulator, Linda Keen, who had ordered the medical isotope reactor shut down to upgrade safety systems that had been ordered by the Canadian Safety Commission (CNSC) but not put in place most notably, water pumps. The reason given for the dismissal of Ms. Keen was that a huge number of people would not be able to receive radioisotopes for cancer treatment or medical tests because of the shutdown. The reactor was restarted before any upgrades were done.
Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen. In the upper atmosphere, cosmic rays interact with atmospheric gases to produce tritium, (hydrogen-3, symbol T or 3H). It occurs in nature in minute quantities. Emissions from military and civil nuclear facilities far exceed natural sources. A beta transmitter, tritium combines readily with oxygen to produce radioactive water (tritiated water) with a physical half-life of 12.3 years. Heavy water reactors such as the CANDU produce larger amounts than light water reactors.
Beta emitters such as tritium were not thought to cause much harm in the past. The more recent science has disclosed an increased health risk long suspected by some earlier researchers. Tritiated water is dangerous if inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the pores of the skin. Radiation dose depends on both the strength of the source but also on the length of time a person is exposed. Faster growing or changing cells are more vulnerable to exposure to radiation.
Some of the tritiated water that is absorbed becomes combined with carbon in the body. This is called organically bound tritium (OBT). The OBT fraction of tritiated water is made up of two components. One component, OBT1, easily reacts with other chemicals in the body and binds with oxygen, sulphur, phosphorus or nitrogen atoms to form amino acids, proteins, sugars, starches, lipids, and cell structural material thus making them radioactive. This component has a half-life of 40 days. The second component, OBT2, binds with carbon atoms of the DNA with a half-life of about 550 days. According to Dr. Rosalie Bertell, it has been demonstrated by scientists that both of these components occur in the body in localized areas not homogeneously throughout.2
The major sources of low dose radiation in the Great Lakes water systems come from nuclear electricity power plants that are situated on watercourses leading into or on the shores of the lakes. Other sources are related to industries using radioactive materials and waste dumps containing radioactivity that can seep into the water system.
Since about 1990, the international research community has spent more time looking at lower dose rate health effects. Many of these scientists have been surprised to discover effects such as genomic instability, the bystander effect, an increase in Relative Biological Effect (RBE), mini-satellite damage and non-homogeneous distribution of radionuclides. These effects are especially true for those emitters that get inside the body, such as Alpha and Beta particles. These particles are derived from natural or manmade nuclear fission. These studies have revealed mechanisms that explain the health effects of low level ionizing radiation and builds on the base from previous scientific evidence.
Unfortunately, the Canadian and U.S. regulatory bodies take their cues from the International Commission on Radiation Protection (ICRP), a self-appointed and self-perpetuating non-government organization. The ICRP has ignored much of the peer-reviewed new evidence in their recommendations. There is a lack of recognition in the ICRP recommendations of the health effects on the fertilized ovum, fetus, small child, women, the elderly, and chronically ill or those who are immune compromised. ICRP only considers cancer deaths as a significant health risk. There seems to be no recognition that the general public might see miscarriages, children born with deformities, non-cancerous tumors, even cured cancers as unaffordable risks.
A better model of risk assessment is that of the European Commission on Radiation Risk (ECRR) whose critique of the ICRP methodology for estimating radiation dose has been echoed by NATO4 and the French Radiation Protection Agency.3
The findings of the German government-sponsored study of childhood cancer (KiKK Study) released in 2008 found that children less than 5 years old living within 5km. of a nuclear power plant exhaust stack had twice the risk of contracting leukemia as those living more than 5km away. A significantly elevated risk was also found up to 50 km away. Sixteen nuclear power plants were studied. Even though this study was carried out using a superior research model and providing peer reviewed evidence, the results have been ignored or disputed by some regulators.4
According to Professor Emeritus of Physics and Environmental Sciences, Rudi H. Nussbaum, “Studies with results contradictory to those of KiKK lack statistical power to invalidate its findings.” The KiKK study’s findings add to the urgency for a public policy debate regarding the health impact of nuclear power generation.5,6
Radionuclides found in Great Lakes water include tritium, carbon-14, cesium and radioiodine including the long-lived iodine-129, all inimical to the human body. While even naturally occurring radioactivity is a matter of health concern, there is nothing we can do about it. However, we can do something about stopping the increasing amounts of man-made radioisotopes in our biosphere. A large number of nuclear power plants around the Great Lakes emitting some degree of tritium. This should be of great concern to all who derive their drinking water from this source.
Having studied the health effects of low doses of ionizing radiation for over forty years, Dr. Rosalie Bertell, Ph.D., G.N.S.H., is a leading expert in that area of environmental epidemiology at an international level. She believes strongly that a zero Health Based Goal for man-made tritium is the only acceptable goal for regulation from a public health standpoint. She has stated on more than one occasion that she “rejects the ICRP methodology for calculating the internal absorbed dose from inhaled ingested and skin-absorbed tritium. Exposure to the biological half-life of carbon-bound (or fixed) OBT is significantly underestimated by them.”7
It is imperative that a continuing assessment of the levels of tritium in Great Lakes waters should be done. A level of tritium should be set to reduce that allowed as low as possible with the eventual target being zero man-made tritium.
In 2008, the Ontario Advisory Committee on Environmental Standards (ACES) composed of medical technologists proposed an immediate guideline of 100 Bq/L for tritium and then within five years, a guideline of 20Bq/L of water. Natural tritium in drinking water was at that time estimated to be below 10Bq/L. The late Professor Emeritus of the University of Waterloo, Hari Sharma, said that tritium was not measurable in Lake Ontario prior to the large nuclear weapons test on Bikini Island in the South Pacific in 1954, an unlikely target now.
IICPH believes that a target of 20Bq/l of tritium is possible on the way to zero man-made tritium in water.8
2 Health Effects of Tritium Rosalie Bertell Ph.D. G.N.S.H.
3 Recommendations of the European Committee on Radiation Risk: Health Effects of Ionizing Radiation Exposure at Low Doses for Radiation Protection Purposes. Edited by Dr. Chris Busby, Regulators’ Edition; Brussels 2003.
4 NATO Report dated August 1992 submitted to the Defense Ministry in Paris on June 25, 2005 and made public by France July 1, 2005.
5 Response to WCRR: Health consequences of chronic internal contamination by radionuclides, Institit de Radioprotection et de Surete Nucleaire, French DRPH2005 -– 20, 2005
6 Implications of Recent Authoritative Study o0f Childhood Cancers Near Sixteen German Nuclear Power Plants Rudi H. Nussbaum, Professor Emeritus of Physics and Environmental Sciences, Portland State University Portland Or
7 Rosalie Bertell Health Effects of Tritium plus Appendix I and II