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The Chernobyl and Fukushima meltdowns let loose plenty of tritium, but so have a seemingly endless series of leaks at aging reactors in the U.S. and elsewhere. Such leaks have prompted the EPA to announce on February 4 plans to revisit standards for tritium that has found its way into water—so-called tritiated water, or HTO—along with risk limits for individual exposure to radiation and nuclear waste storage, among other issues surrounding nuclear power.
Or, as a health physicist who has studied tritium for years observes, in the 1970s, the EPA did not rely on any health studies in setting its original standards. Instead, the EPA back-calculated acceptable levels of tritium in water from the radiation exposure delivered by already extant radionuclides from nuclear weapons testing in surface waters. "It's not a health-based standard, it's based on what was easily achievable," remarks David Kocher of the Oak Ridge Center for Risk Analysis, who has evaluated health risks from tritium and spent 30 years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The standard of 20,000 pCi/L of drinking water made compliance easy. "No drinking water anywhere was anywhere close, so it cost nothing to meet."
But there is no definitive epidemiological study to assess the true risk of tritium, and animal studies are also lacking. The cancer rates in Japanese survivors of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki can reveal little because they were not exposed to tritium either. "You need huge study populations to have any chance of seeing anything," Kocher notes, and that money is simply unavailable. "There is no compelling need to spend the money required to do th