State environmental commissioner Bob Martin recently commented on the presence of the radioactive chemical tritium in groundwater near the Oyster Creek nuclear plant:
Martin's statement may be too little, too late. Tritium leaks from Oyster Creek were first detected 13 months ago, adding to the growing list of 33 U.S. nuclear plants with such leaks. Exelon, the owner of Oyster Creek, has moved slowly to address these leaks, even admitting it is literally impossible to detect all leaks from the tangle of pipes beneath the plant.
Yet Martin and other state environmental protection officials have allowed Oyster Creek to continue operating. Furthermore, they have failed to warn the public about the threat these leaks pose to their health.
Tritium is a heavy form of hydrogen. It is radioactive, and traces of it exist in nature. But the great majority of tritium in our world is manmade. It was produced in large amounts in atomic bomb tests in the 1950s and 1960s. Now, it is produced by nuclear reactors like Oyster Creek.
Tritium is a waste product. It is not needed after a reactor generates electricity. But it must be securely stored for hundreds of years or it can enter human bodies — by breathing, eating and drinking (mostly from drinking water).
Martin has failed to note that tritium from Oyster Creek has already entered human bodies. In the past seven years, official government records show that 484 curies of the chemical were released into the air, with levels rising an enormous amount over time — more than at most U.S. nuclear plants. This figure doesn't count the tritium escaping through undetected leaks at the plant.
The fact tritium is present in groundwater at levels far above that legally permitted is just the tip of the iceberg. Government records show that tritium is present, in rising amounts, in New Jersey drinking water, which means it is entering human bodies.
Scientific studies show that exposure to tritium is linked with higher cancer rates in humans. More than 10 percent of lung cancer cases among nuclear plant workers in Canada have been attributed to radiation exposure, based on measured tritium exposure levels. Exposed workers at the Los Alamos nuclear research lab in New Mexico had a 78 percent greater lung cancer risk, again based on tritium exposure levels. Among workers at the Savannah River nuclear weapons plant in South Carolina, researchers found the higher the tritium exposure, the higher the risk of dying from leukemia.
Whether tritium alone causes these cancers is unknown because it may be a marker for all radioactive materials to which workers are exposed. Reactors like Oyster Creek create an additional 100 to 200 radioactive chemicals. Like tritium, all cause cancer. Like tritium, some escapes from reactors into the air. Like tritium, all are leaking from corroded pipes under Oyster Creek and other plants. And like tritium, all enter human bodies through breathing and the food chain.
These chemicals include strontium, cesium, iodine and plutonium. They may sound familiar to those who recall the massive, above-ground atom bomb tests in Nevada half a century ago. They are identical to the toxic mix in reactors.
If Commissioner Martin and his colleagues are serious about protecting New Jerseyans, they would call for a comprehensive and immediate assessment of health risks from tritium (and other) leaks. Official data raises red flags. The cancer rate in Ocean County, where Oyster Creek is located, is the second highest in the state. For years, a cancer cluster plagued children in nearby Toms River — a cluster never resolved by health officials. Children are most sensitive to the harm caused by radiation exposure.
The people of New Jersey are entitled to know all risks posed by the 41-year-old Oyster Creek plant — the oldest of the 104 U.S. reactors. It may be that replacing the electricity Oyster Creek contributes to the state — only about 7 percent — can be easily accomplished, with a great potential benefit to public health.
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research and education group based in New York.