TEPCO’s truly tiny tritium terror.

(NOTE:  this post started out on Fukushima, then turned to tritium, then to radiological concerns at the WTC site after 9/11, then to using tritium for assassination, and finally how to survive tritium assassination yourself.  It’s actually a pretty informative essay, and quite useful if you need an excuse to drink beer.)

I’ve seen the recent Fukushima articles on radioactive water threatening to escape to the ocean.  Here’s the latest (link thanks to Instapundit).

Highly radioactive water seeping into the ocean…is creating an “emergency”…

This contaminated groundwater has breached an underground barrier, is rising toward the surface and is exceeding legal limits of radioactive discharge…

As always…ALWAYS!…they withhold the numbers that would allow us to evaluate their editorials.  Obviously this is an “emergency” in an administrative and PR sense.  But it is not an “OMG someone’s gonna die!” emergency.

Three isotopes are mentioned:  tritium, strontium, and cesium.  The highest estimate for total tritium released (so far) is 40 trillion becquerels, or Bqs.  A Bq is one disintegration per second.  Forty trillion of those sounds like a lot.  Heck, it is a lot.  And yet that amount still feels ridiculously low to me.

But then, I know about emergency exit signs.

You know those “EXIT” signs for emergency evacuation?  Obviously they have to work 24/7, even with the power out.  Thus they’re traditionally nuclear-powered, with tritium.  How much tritium?  Typical brand-new signs have up to 25 Curies of activity.  A Curie is 3.7E10 disintegrations per second, or almost 40 billion Bqs.   Multiply that by 25 and you get…one trillion becquerels.  Per sign.

So take all of the Fukushima tritium released thus far*…and it’s less than what you find at a multiplex theater.  The NRC estimates over two million signs in the United States.  That’s about two thousand quadrillion Bqs, or 500,000 Fukushimas.

In fact, right after 9/11 I brought up the tritium question.  At the time I was a rad tech at  Brookhaven National Lab and a member of our Radiological Assistance Program.  We were quickly mobilized for a possible response, just like every other emergency team in America.  Our members ended up spending hundreds of hours surveying rubble brought up from the WTC site during that terrible recovery.

Because of tritium?  No.  Oh, we probably did some tritium surveys, just to prove it wasn’t a problem.  I can’t say because I never worked the site.  I wanted to, of course, but had no Q Clearance.  And since enough of our team already had that clearance, they did the work.  It wasn’t that Q-level security was needed, but it was doable.  And after 9/11, if something was doable then it was by-gosh done.

But why, you may wonder, did we survey the site in the first place?  We were told that the concerns were, 1) possible depleted uranium from the planes, and, 2) possible radiography sources from the Towers.

That some planes carried uranium counterweights came as news to me, but there you have it.  It still wasn’t a worry once we knew it would be U-238, depleted uranium.  Not even  two tons of it, which was theoretically possible.  An equal amount of lead would be more worrisome, given its lower melting temperature.  Why worry about radiation if heavy metal poisoning gets you first?  But spread a few cubic feet of lead throughout the collapse of two 110-story buildings, and no emergency responders would ever be endangered by it.

Anyway, as it turned out, the 9/11 planes used wolfram, not uranium.

So, concern #2.  Radiography sources.  Was that a likely hazard to the brave responders?  No.  It was extraordinarily unlikely…but theoretically possible.  There was at least one NDT company with offices at the WTC.  A full-service NDT company uses radiation.  But would you store highly radioactive sources at your administration center rather than in engineering or industrial facilities?  Nope.  Nor, as it turns out, did they.  Of course, we didn’t know for sure at the time.  And since surveying was doable, we dood it.

Had there been a radiography source, it’d still have taken several black cats’ worth of bad luck to endanger someone.  But if the source flew out of its lead pig or the pig melted and the source didn’t, and if that source was near and in line-of-sight to a (motionless) responder for hours or it somehow fell into his clothing and stayed there without him noticing…then he’d be in serious trouble.

But if rad techs are also present and surveying with μrem meters or friskers…is there a hazard then?  Nope.

Okay, but what if the radiography source itself had melted and spread thoroughly across the WTC site?  Er…that would have, 1) eliminated acute hazard to any individual, but, 2) added tens of millions of dollars to the cleanup expense.  My profession has a adage as true as it is politically incorrect:  “dilution’s the solution to the problem of pollution.”  Insufficient dilution, though, is a nightmarish career-ender.

(Note:  we rad technicians aren’t permitted the “dilution solution”, nor do we want it.  It’s just a sardonic observation.)

But back to tritium.  When we BNL techs learned of the rad concerns, I mentioned that the Twin Towers would have been filled with exit signs.  In that single day the WTC site released twenty to a hundred times more tritium than Fukushima has in 30 months.  It was hundreds of times more activity than the theoretical uranium counterweights or radiography sources possessed.  Yet I only mentioned it for the sake of completeness; none of us worried about any danger from WTC tritium.


Because before my time, the Brookhaven RAP team had already dealt with an exit sign emergency.  Specifically, exit sign + teen-age stupidity.  A kid had stolen a sign, broken into it I guess to play GLOW STICK, then finally started to worry about the little sticker.



The RAP responders arrived at an almost perfectly worse-case scenario.   Keep in mind, this kid released about 1/40th as much tritium as Fukushima has, except he did it in a small basement bedroom with poor air circulation.  He should have just huffed it straight out of the tube, but what can you say?  Wimp.

Tritium has an almost Houdini-like ability to escape confinement and disperse like leftist dishonesty.  But there was a still lot of contamination in that room during the technician’s survey.  So what conclusion did they reach, after all the measuring and calculating and whatnot?  How soon was the kid going to keel over from radiation poisoning?

As I recall, they assigned him a dose of 57 mrem.  (That’s 0.57 mSievert, for you Euroweenies.)  That’s not quite a lethal dose.  So release an entire Fukushima’s worth!  That makes his dose about 2300 mrem**.  Of course, to have a 50-50 chance of killing him within a month, you need a dose of 460 rem.  If you want the assassination to be almost certain, double that dose to 920 rem.

So you’d take all the tritium that Fukushima has released so far, add another 399 Fukushimas to that amount…then release your sixteen quadrillion becquerels in the teenager’s poorly ventilated bedroom while he sleeps.

Alternately, you could crack 16,000 exit signs under his nose.  Or one over his head, I suppose.  But that’s cheating.

So…in conclusion…the moral to this story…is…oh yeah!  Unlike other radioactive isotopes,  tritium ingestion can be combatted by drinking beer!

Guess I buried the lede, huh?


*Assuming TEPCO’s numbers can be trusted, which is admittedly a generous assumption.
**Assuming both bioavailabilities are the same, which they’re not.  So add or subtract a hundred Fukushimas, whatever.

About wormme

I've accepted that all of you are socially superior to me. But no pretending that any of you are rational.
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11 Responses to TEPCO’s truly tiny tritium terror.

  1. Edohiguma says:

    Omg! Tritium!

    What people always forget is that the Pacific is pretty damn big. The currents will spread everything out, they have done that so far pretty well. Yes, there’s some higher radiation in fish. Papers like the Japan Times, with their open nuclearphobia, like to throw around Becquerel a lot, because most people have no clue what a Becquerel is and I doubt the writers themselves know it either.

    I had a look at how many Bq the human body has simply because of consumption of stuff like potassium. That fish frightens me not.

    • Edohiguma says:


      I actually got banned from the Japan Times comment section for pointing such things out. Okay, not just for radioactivity, but also for pointing out historic facts and even sourcing them.

      The majority of the commentators on the JT comment section seem to be foreigners (primarily Americans and Brits, the occasional German liberal, that sort of folks) and many of them have likely never been to Japan (their lack of knowledge in regards to normal Japanese culture betrays them quickly), so they follow this approach: Facts are bad! Continue to live in ignorance and continue to believe what journalists with political agendas tell you to believe.

      • wormme says:

        Banned! Nice. I wish somebody cared enough about me to throw me out…

        • Edohiguma says:

          I pissed off too many people I guess.

          But I can block you on Twitter if that makes you feel better. Even when you have no Twitter account. I can still pretend I’m blocking you.

          • wormme says:

            Just block me off the NSA’s account, if you please.

          • Edohiguma says:

            The official account, or the “official” account, or the secret account, the not-so-secret account, that other secret account or the account from the director’s wife’s dog psychologist?

  2. interesting … so no readings on the cesium or strontium?

    Seems they should be piping this dirty water into the ocean with every outgoing tide. But I don’t really understand how they have it “sequestered”. If it is getting around their barriers, they might as well get it into the ocean.

    People seem to love conspiracies and/or catastrophes, and don’t like to surrender their imagination to less alarming factual accountss. I’m thinking a new version of Godzilla versus King Kong should be written, with the giant creatures being created as a result of Fukushima contamination mutating the wildlife.

    • wormme says:

      Yeah, as usual TEPCO gives us about the least usual information possible.

    • Edohiguma says:

      Yes they love this kind of stuff. 9/11 the inside job, FEMA camps, German media claiming that TEPCO was using minors, homeless people and foreigners to clean up when things were still hot, some people in Austria still believe that Jörg Haider was killed by the Mossad, etc.

      It’s much easier to believe weird and very often completely unreasonable theories than facing reality.

  3. wdydfae says:

    Do any of you tech guys have a straightforward analysis or assessment of the waste water and sea leakage situation at Fukushima (in simple English!)?

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