Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant is leaking copious quantities of tritium, a relatively rare (in nature) and extremely hazardous radioactive isotope of hydrogen. Tritium can be absorbed through the skin, as well as ingested or inhaled.
Water from test wells around the Vermont Yankee reactor has over 2 million picoCuries of tritium per liter -- more than 100 times the legal limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for tritium in drinking water, which is 20,000 picoCuries of tritium per liter (20,000 picoCuries equals about 740 radioactive decays per second (740 Becquerel ("Bq")).
Two million picoCuries per liter is nearly as poisonous as the 2.7 million picoCuries per liter that occurs in the chemical brew of a nuclear reactor's primary coolant loop.
Nuclear reactor operators are allowed to release a small fraction of a teaspoon of tritium offsite per year. But even that tiny amount must be diluted in billions of gallons of water to meet the legal standards for drinking water. If the water in your body was polluted with tritium at the legal limit, it would contain about 400 times the average concentration of tritium in the human body.
Tritium has a half-life of about 12.3 years, meaning half of any given quantity of tritium will decay in that time and in the next 12.3 years, half of what is left will spontaneously decay, and so on. It takes about 20 half-lifes (about 250 years) for any spilled tritium to be eliminated from the environment.
By definition all hydrogen has one proton, but the tritium isotope also has two neutrons in its core and is unstable -- radioactive. The most common isotope of hydrogen is stable and has no neutrons. Hydrogen with one neutron in its core, called deuterium, is also stable.
The body cannot detect the difference between radioactive tritium and stable isotopes of hydrogen (nor can it distinguish radioactive isotopes of any other elements from stable isotopes of the same (or chemically similar) elements).
When a tritium atom decays, it releases a beta particle. Beta particles are normal electrons, except they are traveling at very high speed (within a few percent of the speed of light). The beta particle immediately starts to slow down as it passes things with electrical charges -- other negatively-charged electrons and positively-charged protons.
Beta particles only exist for a fraction of a second. Tritium's beta particle typically travels less than a millimeter through human tissue before it is slowed to normal electron speeds and is captured by something needing an extra electron.
The nuclear industry likes to point out that tritium's beta decay particle is a "low energy beta particle." That's true, as beta particles go. But here's what the nuclear industry doesn't like to tell you about "low energy beta particles": They are essentially just as dangerous as high-energy beta particles because nearly all the damage from a beta particle comes at the end of its travel, when it's slowed down so much that it stays near the last few thousand atoms it passes long enough to have a significant effect on each of them in turn as it passes.
Since radiation damage is often measured in total energy dumped into a given quantity of tissue, by that measure, low-energy beta particles are actually proportionately MORE damaging! Just the opposite of what the industry claims!
When the beta particle is released, one of the neutrons in the core of the tritium atom converts to a proton. With two protons and one neutron in the nucleus of the atom, the element is now a stable isotope of helium, not hydrogen. Chemically, helium won't combine with much of anything. Certainly not with a molecule comprising one hydrogen and one oxygen atom, which is what's left of the water molecule the tritium atom probably was originally a part of. The remaining "OH" molecule is a potent "free radical" which can damage your body until it is absorbed by something: Vitamin C or some other anti-oxidant, for instance.
Tritium is called an "activation product." Vermont Yankee is not only leaking tritium: Within the millions of gallons of chemically-treated and highly irradiated primary coolant loop water that has been spewing out of Vermont Yankee -- probably for years, maybe even for decades -- are undoubtedly a whole rainbow of radioactive elements, including long-lived isotopes of elements such as iodine and technetium and many others.
Fuel assemblies in nuclear reactors commonly fail by cracking slightly. The zirconium shielding deteriorates and the radioactive uranium gets out, and so does anything else inside. What's inside, besides the unfissioned uranium, are "fission products." Fission is what they are trying to do inside the reactor, enough to boil water but not enough to melt down the reactor. For every uranium atom that is fissioned, there are usually two fission products that result, each of which is radioactive and each of which weighs, on average, about half as much as the original uranium atom. All fission products are radioactive because they invariably have too many neutrons to be stable.
When setting standards, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) generally does not aggregate radioactive components in your drinking water. Just because you have one contaminant in your water doesn't mean you don't have many others there as well. In the case of Vermont Yankee, the pollutants presumably include strontium, cesium, and many other radioactive elements. But as long as each one has been diluted to Below Regulatory Concern (BRC), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) doesn't care, and EPA doesn't care, and the nuclear industry certainly doesn't care. Just dilute it, and, as far as they're concerned, it disappears. Such thinking is self-serving, insulting, dangerous, and archaic. It flies in the face of the standard, accepted scientific theory that radiation damage follows an "LNT" ("Linear, No Threshold") pattern. (In fact, some experts believe low levels of radiation cause proportionately more damage. And admittedly, there will probably always be a few "experts" (usually well-paid by the nuclear industry) who "honestly" believe that low doses of radiation are actually beneficial, regardless of how randomly those doses are administered.)
The only way to clean up the radiation at Vermont Yankee is to close the plant, build a big pit somewhere where it doesn't rain much, line it with a lining that will last practically forever (good luck finding these things) and move all of the waste (including the dirt and concrete) there. But instead, right now, Vermont Yankee's tritium, strontium, iodine, technetium, and everything else WILL get into the drinking water in Vermont and into the Connecticut River. It WILL kill children and other living things in the communities downwind and downstream of the reactor, which potentially includes anywhere on Earth. Radiation from Vermont Yankee has undoubtedly been killing people for years, and it will continue to kill for many years to come even if the reactor is shut down permanently, as it should be.
Vermont Yankee is one of the oldest reactors in America. So what's happening there -- namely, it is falling apart and it's owners don't want to spend any more than they have to to keep it going -- is a precursor of what's to come at other reactors. The owner (Entergy, which is trying to sell it) claimed in sworn testimony to the people and elected officials of Vermont that Vermont Yankee was NOT leaking tritium, but they knew it was. Then they said it wasn't leaking MUCH tritium, but they knew it was. Now they say the tritium is harmless, but any sane person knows that's a lie, too.
In addition to the leaks, Vermont Yankee also is piling up enormous quantities of used reactor cores at the site. One third of the reactor core assemblies are removed every eighteen months to two years. These irradiated "hot" fuel assemblies are extremely hazardous -- ten million times more hazardous than when they were placed inside the reactor (approximately).
By now there is about a thousand tons of "spent fuel" (what an innocuous-sounding name!) located at Vermont Yankee. A fraction of a milligram is a lethal dose, if inhaled or ingested. You could not stand near the fuel for 2 seconds if it were unshielded. If it catches fire, the local fire department will not be able to extinguish the flames, and cancer clusters will appear later, as much as 500 miles (or more) downwind. A single gram of "spent fuel" would have a significant impact on Vermont and its neighboring states, were it to be released by accident or by terrorism or acts of God.
Vermont Yankee is a relatively small reactor, about half the size of more modern reactors in terms of electrical output, and it could easily be replaced by renewable options. Nuclear reactors are terrible "baseline" power sources anyway, since they are prone to sudden and prolonged shutdowns. They create, and then leak, horrifically dangerous poisons which deform our babies, give our children cancer, and can cause heart attacks, dementia, and a thousand other illnesses -- and they make other illnesses worse. Their owners lie and obfuscate, and their nuclear waste is a growing nightmare.
It's time to shut Vermont Yankee down -- and the rest of our reactors, too.
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|Denis G. Rancourt|